For hundreds of years, the lives of fisherfolks along the sleepy coastal villages in the town of Magsaysay in Misamis Oriental has been intertwined with the hawksbill sea turtles that considered this beach as their nesting site. With their numbers dwindling at a critical level in the wild, the community has stepped-up on their efforts to secure the protection of the eggs and hatchlings for the years to come.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Red List of Threatened Species website, the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate) is listed as critically endangered because its population reduced to 80% over the last 10 years.
Town records suggest that between January to September 2018, there had been five recorded hawksbill turtle nesting, four in Barangay Candiis and one in Barangay Damayuhan. This is higher than the 2017 record of three, but a swift decline from the 10 to 15 nesting per year from 2000 to 2005, with 2002 as the highest with 15 nestings.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Region 10 stated that the area is a critical habitat for hawksbill turtles pursuant to Sections 4 and 25 of RA 9147.
This law mandates the DENR to establish and manage critical habitats in areas within its jurisdiction but outside protected areas declared under RA 7586 or the National Integrated Protected Area System (NIPAS) Act of 1992.
On 2012, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has designated a 612-hectare area in the town of Magsaysay, Misamis Oriental as critical habitat for hawksbill sea turtles.
The designation of Magsaysay Critical Habitat for Hawksbill Turtles (MCHHT) is embodied in DENR Administrative Order (DAO) No. 2016-02, establishing the coastal barangays of Candiis, San Isidro and Damayohan as wildlife critical habitats where a total of six nesting sites were found.
Donato H. Bojo, Zoology Technician of the Protected Area Management and Biodiversity Conservation Section (PAMBCS) of the DENR pointed out the uniqueness of the area.
“This is unique because throughout Region 10, it is only in the town of Magsaysay that we have recorded several hatching sites for hawksbill sea turtle which are considered as critically endangered. And this phenomenon did not just happen overnight, this means that these sea turtles had been nesting on this area for hundreds of years,” said Bojo.
Rolando Pagara, council member of Barangay Candiis and in-charge of the pawikan conservation areas, explained that the efforts and funding in protecting the nesting site started back in 1999 but has slowly diminished over the past 10 years.
“Since 1999, so much have been done for the protection and preservation of the nesting sites here in Magsaysay. Unfortunately, most of our volunteers also need additional support for their livelihood to sustain their families. Monitoring these areas requires a huge amount of time and effort. This takes away the valuable quality time of our volunteers who are also fishermen. However, we observed that the support and efforts from non-government organizations slowly died out in the past decade. Yet, we remain to be hopeful we can continue this cause and be able to preserve these creatures for the next generations,” said Pagara.
Pagara explained the need for protecting the marine turtles that lay their eggs in the area.
“Every year we have recorded about three to as much as six hawksbill turtle nesting along our shoreline which we closely monitored. With the vast coastal area, I’m sure there are other parts that we have not been able to monitor and examine as most of the nesting happens in the evening. While it may sound insignificant to others, the nesting in our shorelines is actually a very unique case. This is because according to studies, hawksbill turtles lay eggs on white sand beaches, but here you see brown and yet they still come back year after year to lay their eggs,” he said.
Pagara claimed that the town has the most number of nesting hawksbill turtles in the Philippines.
Climate Change and Challenges of Conservation
Pagara indicated that another factor that may risk the survival and nesting behavior of the sea turtles is climate change.
“Climate change is a key factor in the nesting behavior of the hawksbill sea turtle as well as in the survival of its hatchlings. One good example is that on July 12 and 13, 2018 there was a sudden increase in the tides all over the Misamis Oriental coastline which spurred a 2.7 high tide that hit our turtle nesting sites. Sadly, only 40 out of the 153 eggs were hatched, and we were able to release them early morning on July 23, 2018.”
Sea Turtle Conservancy (conserveturtles.org) noted that because sea turtles use both marine and terrestrial habitats during their life cycles, the effects of climate change are likely to have a devastating impact on these endangered species. A rise in the sea level will cause a great impact on the sea turtles’ nesting beaches.
Sea turtles’ memories are “imprinted” with a magnetic map of the sandy beach where they hatch. This gives them the unique ability to return to that same site decades later to repeat their ancient nesting ritual.
With melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels, these beaches are beginning to disappear. The direct impacts of sea level rise include losing beaches, ecologically productive wetlands, and barrier islands.
The group stated that “An increase in nesting beach temperatures also has an impact on sea turtles. Because sea turtles are reptiles, they rely on the temperature of the sand in which the eggs incubate to determine the gender of the hatchling in a nest. Typically, the eggs in the lower, cooler, part of the nest will become males, while the eggs in the upper, warmer; part of the nest will become females.”
With increasing nest temperatures, scientists predict that there will be more female than male hatchlings, creating a significant threat to genetic diversity. Coral reefs, which are an important food source for sea turtles, are in great danger. As a result of rising temperatures, coral reefs are suffering from a bleaching effect that kills off parts of the reef.
Ranoray Love A. Noro, section chief of PAMBCS-DENR 10, stated that drastic changes had happened along the coastline of Misamis Oriental.
“Sadly, in just 30 years, numerous changes have occurred along the entire coastline of the province. While climate change is a factor, other factors such as beach armoring or creating artificial rock formation and fencing along the beach have changed the area. Land use like beach resorts on a critical habitat should be considered illegal,” said Noro.
“Having sea turtles nesting along the entire coastline between Magsaysay town in Misamis Oriental and Carmen town of Agusan del Norte is a very huge indication that the ocean’s eco-system along this areas are still healthy and that we should take care of them,” added Noro.
Noro explained that the sea turtle plays a major role in keeping the marine ecosystem healthy.
“The waste of these large creatures will serve as food for microorganisms and planktons which are also fundamental in the coral reef ecosystem and as food for numerous fish and other aquatic animals,” he said.
Based on the DENR national data, both the area in Carmen, Agusan del Norte and Magsaysay, Misamis Oriental covers about 6,300 hectares of the protected area to ensure the survival of critically endangered marine species.
In 2008, DENR conducted a series of marine wildlife assessment studies in Carmen and observed that sea turtles were nesting in town’s five coastal barangays namely Vinapor, Gosoon, San Agustin, Cahayagan and Tagcatong. Later, the study area expanded to the adjacent barangays of Magsaysay in Misamis Oriental.
Noro emphasized that the most challenging factor in the conservation program was educating the people.
“The activities that our office does and the undertakings that we partner with the communities and NGO’s sounds easy. We have hundreds of educational drives, campaigns, programs, and training. But the question here is; how much of that has really been absorbed and implemented in the community and among stakeholders. Sometimes because of the hard life and lack of alternative livelihood, some of the members of the community are pushed to practices that are detrimental to the existence of our sea turtles.”
Pagara added that even though most of the fishermen know that it is illegal to hunt and catch the turtles, he still gets reports of dead turtles washed out in the shoreline without carapace or the turtle’s shell— a sought commodity in the black market.
“Hawksbill shells are the primary source of tortoiseshell material used for decorative and medicinal purposes. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species outlaws the capture and trade of hawksbill sea turtles and products derived from them,” Pagara concluded.
Republic Act No. 9147 or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act aims to protect all wildlife, including the marine turtles. Hunting, killing, gathering, their eggs, destroying their nests, selling, transporting and mere possession of any part or derivatives is punishable with a fine of Php100,000.00 to Php1,000,000.00 and/or imprisonment of 6 to 12 years.