Saving turtles and respecting culture… it’s complicated

Leah Lui-Chivizhe takes a look at the complex relationship between turtles and tradition in the Torres Strait.

Marine turtles, are without a doubt, a charismatic species. We are all in awe of their ancientness, entranced by images of tiny hatchlings scurrying into the ocean and smitten with shots of them swimming or just “hanging out” on an ocean current.

In the Torres Strait, the lives of Islanders and marine turtles have entwined for millennia. As the seasonal winds and ocean currents continue to usher turtles into the region, water depth and the right environmental conditions combine to ensure the growth of extensive sea grass meadows, an all-important turtle food.

Every year thousands of green turtles move through the Torres Strait to eat sea grass, jellyfish and other small sea creatures, to mate and for some, to nest.

As turtles have moved through the swirling waters of the Torres Strait they have also nourished the bodies and cultural lives of Islanders for thousands of years.

To Islanders, the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) in particular was and is food and archaeological dating of our use of turtle for subsistence and ceremonial purposes is between 6000 to 7000 years BP. The longevity of our use of turtle facilitated the development of a rich bank of knowledge on turtle and turtle ecology and particular taxonomies exist in the two languages of the region. In the 1970s it was recorded that of all marine fauna, it was turtle and dugong that Islanders described with the utmost precision. As well as being food, the turtle has other cultural, totemic and symbolic meanings for Islanders. This was emphasised in a recent report from the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program which flagged the “immense spiritual significance” of turtle (as well as dugong) to the people of the Torres Strait.

While the hunting and consumption of turtle by Islanders is classified as a traditional fishery in the region and a right of native title holders it also rubs up against wider community concerns about animal cruelty and species endangerment. It is possible that finding and implementing more efficient methods of killing turtles might go some way towards dealing with claims of cruelty, but species endangerment remains an ongoing concern. In this often fraught conversation, at one end of the spectrum are various conservationists and animal rights activists who cast traditional hunting as barbaric and unnecessary. Indeed Islanders’ traditional practices in this model are seen as the cause of future extinction. At the other end of the spectrum are many Islanders and other indigenous people, who say we have hunted and eaten this food for thousands of years and we have a right to continue practicing our traditions.

As the opposing groups cast around for scientific, political and community support to bolster their own position, the complexities and multiple challenges of saving turtles is in danger of being overlooked. Sea level rises and pollution play a significant part in the future survival of marine turtles. Extreme weather events and rising sea levels can devastate hatching success. Storm surges wash away nesting beaches and if the nesting turtles are disoriented by the shifting sand, they won’t know where to lay their eggs. If they lay their eggs too low on the beach, the nest will be flooded by the high tide and the eggs will die.

And for the tiny turtles that make it out to sea, not only do they have to avoid being eaten by birds, and crabs and sharks, there are also human made dangers. Turtles caught up in the nets of fishing and prawning trawlers will die by drowning or from their injuries. Trawling is believed to be responsible for more sea turtle deaths than any other human factor. Throughout northern Australia –discarded or lost fishing nets, known as ghost nets – drift in the sea and move in the same currents used by turtles. Turtles that become entangled in ghost nets will drown. On Raine Island, a coral cay on the northern edge of the Great Barrier Reef recognised as the largest green turtle hatchery in the world, overcrowding and erosion are devastating hatchling survival rates. The loss of hatchlings is so dire one proposal is to transport tonnes of sand to the island to rebuild nesting beaches.

Islanders are also worried about the multiple threats to future turtle numbers posed by pollutants, commercial fishing and rising sea levels. Islander rangers across the region routinely monitor the status of sea-grass meadows and nesting beaches and record how many eggs and hatchlings survive each nesting season. This helps to give scientists and Islanders important information about and hope for the possible future of turtles in the Torres Strait. Islanders also know how important it is to limit pollution in the region. For island peoples, the sea is the ‘supermarket’ providing fish to feed families and turtle for ceremonies. Damage to the regions marine ecosystem will have drastic, potentially irreversible consequences for turtle populations as well as for populations of Islanders.

So, yes… it’s complicated!

Leah Lui-Chivizhe is a doctoral student in history at the University of Sydney where her research focuses on Torres Strait Islander relationships and engagements with the marine environment and the Islander-turtle relationship. Leah also holds graduate qualifications in material anthropology and human geography. Her research inspired an Earth Hour performance this year, She [Still] Cries at Night, by The Living Room Theatre.

Image: Ken Lund