A green sea turtle, with a remora on its back, rests on the bottom of the ocean floor to feast on seagrass. Photo by Caroline S. Rogers
Friends of the V.I. National Park store manager and Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education St. John coordinator Karl Pytlik knows a lot about the ecology of Virgin Islands waters. But Pytlik was both surprised and appalled to discover recently that turtle hunting is still allowed in the British Virgin Islands.
Fishermen in the BVI are allowed to take 24-inch and larger green turtles and 15-inch and larger hawksbill turtles from December 1 through March 31. Turtles of this size are still juveniles, Pytlik explained.
“I am appalled that this is allowed,” he said. “These turtles are endangered and share our waters and contribute to our tourist dollars.”
Turtles tagged in the BVI have been found as far away as Aruba and St. Barths, meaning their impact is wide-reaching.
Pytlik first learned about the BVI’s turtle hunting season during a conversation with a Department of Planning and Natural Resources employee regarding the disruption of pelican nests on Congo.
“He happened to bring it up to me, and I just couldn’t believe it,” said Pytlik. “I knew obviously that we really ruined a lot of the turtle populations here by fishing them a long time ago, but I thought it had been done away with. I’ve worked with conservation people in the BVI before and it was never mentioned.”
Pytlik confirmed the existence of turtle hunting season in the BVI by speaking to a friend who works at the Department of Conservation and Fisheries in the British territory.
“I said, ‘tell me this isn’t true,’ and she confirmed that it is,” he said. “These turtles are obviously endangered, and it blew my mind that this was still going on.”
Estimates range from 150 to 200 turtles killed each year during season. This figure includes leatherbacks, which are extremely endangered and illegal to fish but very valuable due to the fatty oil they produce, which fishermen say they catch by mistake.
Green and hawksbill turtles are likely caught for consumption, and Pytlik believes the shells may be shipped out of the territory to be used elsewhere.
“There’s a lot of different reasons to save them,” said Pytlik. “They like to eat up jellyfish, and it’s a natural resource that we really shouldn’t lose.”
In addition to their ecological importance, the value of turtles in the territory can literally be translated into dollars and cents, Pytlik explained.
“We used to have a scale where we could put a dollar amount on specific animals based on tourists coming to the territory,” he said. “Every tourist that comes down here wants to see a turtle. Just think how many families come here each year wanting to come out and snorkel with the turtles.”
Pytlik estimates each turtle to be worth more than $100,000 annually based on the tourists they bring to the territory.
And while turtle hunting is not legal in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the proximity of the BVI to the USVI ensures that turtle hunting in the British territory undoubtedly affects turtle populations on and around St. John.
“We’re so close to the BVIs, and the populations have dwindled,” said Pytlik. “It makes absolutely no sense to allow that to continue. There’s no real need to do it.”
At this point, Pytlik is still trying to garner support and feel out different channels to help save turtles in the BVI. He’s already affected change in the BVI by convincing them to allow diving operations to carry spear guns in an effort to eradicate the lionfish, and Pytlik is confident he can bring turtle hunting season there to an end.
“If we have a chance to save them, we should keep them around,” he said. “Right now I’m really just looking for ideas and help. It’s more or less about people becoming aware at this point because it’s going to take a little while.”
Pytlik has set up a End Turtle Hunting Season in the British Virgin Islands page on Facebook. He can also be reached at the Friends of the VINP store at 779-8700, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.