Hatchlings (baby turtles) on the beach.

A petition started by a group of NGO’s and environmentalists called the Council of Presidents of the Environment (COPE) two days ago calling for conservationists to be allowed to patrol beaches to protect nesting turtles from poachers has reached over 3,000 signatures.

According to Public Health Guidelines, anyone found on a beach after 6 pm can be arrested and charged with breaching the COVID-19 regulations.

However, COPE said without their protection, five Environmentally Sensitive Species (ESS) of turtles- the Loggerhead, Olive Ridley, Green Turtle, Hawksbill, and the Leatherback-will be in danger of being killed off by poachers.

The petition is addressed to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi and Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat.

Over 12 NGOs have signed on to the petition.

“Council of Presidents of the Environment, as a responsible environmental umbrella organisation, wishes to appeal to the Minister of Health and the political directorate to reconsider the decision to not grant the Turtle Patrol groups access to the beaches at night during the turtle nesting season,” the group stated.

COPE said despite their classification as ESS, the turtles are easy prey for poachers who risk being fined $100,000 for their criminal activity. It said during the turtle nesting season of 2020, poaching in Tobago increased significantly.

“The main target of the poachers on our nesting beaches in recent years has been the Critically Endangered Hawksbill turtle. There is no reason to believe that the Covid-19 regulations will deter poachers who dare to risk a $100,000 fine under the Environmentally Sensitive Species Rules, and we have evidence from Tobago in 2020 that this was not the case. In 2020 with the closure of beaches to the public and a lack of patrols on the nesting beaches in Tobago, the incidents of poaching notably increased.”

The group noted statements from turtle conservationist group Nature Seekers in 2014, which showed that 14,291 visitors were recorded at the Matura beach that year- and tour fees totalled $45,759 US.

It also noted the steps the State has taken over the years towards the protection of turtles including co-management arrangements with Community Based Organisations to ensure patrols on nesting beaches, listing 20km of nesting beaches as prohibited areas, closure of the sea turtle fishery in 2011, the classification of ESS in 2013 and the recent appointment of the National Sea Turtle Task Force.

“COPE urges the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to reconsider their position and make the necessary exemptions to enable turtle patrollers identified by the various CBOs, Game Wardens and other enforcement officers to operate on the nesting beaches at night to deter poaching.”