Sea turtles champion Frederick C. Yeh is facing down poachers on China’s island province of Hainan.
Wildlife biologist Yeh, 34, who runs a sea turtle hospital in Hainan, shares the concerns of the United Nations Tribunal regarding marine life destruction in one of Earth’s most diverse marine habitats.
As a founding member of Hawaii-based Sea Turtles 911, Yeh has enlisted National Basketball Association’s Yao Ming and United States Ambassador Max Baucus to help him protect the sea turtles of Southeast Asia’s “Coral Triangle”, home to six of the world’s seven marine turtle species. Ming and Baucus have publicly stated their support of Yeh as he exposes illegal turtle traffickers in the island province between the Coral Triangle and mainland China.
BBC quotes a 2012 Traffic East Asia report explaining why Hainan has been targeted by Yeh.
“It appears that the majority of illegal fishers involved originated from Hainan, the majority of catches were landed in this island province, and the Hainan markets were the main source for processing and distributing turtle products northward into mainland China.”
Since locating his hospital in a floating fishing village of Hainan’s Lingshui Li Autonomous County, Yeh has rescued 273 sea turtles from the traffickers. He has successfully rehabilitated the endangered creatures and released 238 of them back to their marine environment. Yeh explains why the decimation of sea turtles would affect the entire ecological system.
“Turtles are like underwater lawnmowers: they eat sea grass. A lot of fishermen talk about how there are fewer fish today. Well, if sea grass isn’t there, it produces less oxygen, which leads to less fish.”
After graduating from Johns Hopkins University and Duke University in the United States, Yeh returned to Hainan where he’d spent his childhood years watching the sea turtles’ nesting habits. To his dismay, he found them being sold illegally for their meat and shells by poachers working the Coral Triangle, especially its fertile South China Sea region.
Yeh has done more consciousness-raising than two environmental entities well-positioned to protect the Coral Triangle which encompasses the tropical marine waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste.
The first entity is the Coral Triangle Initiative (C.T.I.), a multilateral partnership of the above-named countries who empowered themselves in May 2009 to use their individual jurisdictions and prevent activities that endanger marine life.
The other entity poised and ready to champion the cause of the sea turtle, is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations representing 10 member countries. They armed themselves with a Memorandum of Understanding on ASEAN Sea Turtle Conservation and Protection in 1997, endorsed by ASEAN Ministers of Agriculture and Forestry at their 20th meeting in 1998.
According to Quartz, the ruling of the United Nations Tribunal at the Hague on July 12, 2016, slams marine life destruction in the South China Sea. The tribunal ruled that China’s island construction “caused permanent, irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem and permanently destroyed evidence of the natural condition of the features in question.”
Either of the two multinational conservation entities could take the ruling as a cue to act.
The U.N. body also determined that Chinese fishermen have been harvesting such endangered species as corals, sea turtles, and sharks, and China’s artificial island-building program has caused “devastating and long-lasting” damage to the marine environment. A 2016 study found that 60 percent of the shallow reef habitat at seven reefs has been directly destroyed by wanton activity under Chinese navy watch.
A good turtle shell can fetch tens of thousands of dollars in the black market. Thus the Hainan poachers range far and wide across the Coral Triangle for such bounty on top of profits from unregulated fishing. Their behaviour has pushed even “neutral” Indonesia to lash out at them, creating waves felt by Beijing.
Shanghaiist reported on Jun 11, 2015 that a district court in the Philippines ordered the release of nine Chinese fishermen who’d been, according to China, “illegally detained” for a year. They were among 11 crewmen of a Chinese fishing boat seized by Filipino police for poaching at the Half Moon Shoal in Philippine waters on May 6, 2014. Of the 555 sea turtles found on the boat, 177 were still alive and liberated back to their habitat.
Nine of the 11 crewmen were put in jail after failing to pay fines of $100,000 each for poaching and additional fines of $2,662 each for harvesting an endangered marine species.
Though press-worthy, these South China Sea squabbles are a distraction from the bigger picture of an ecological disaster in progress, as exposed by the U.N. Tribunal at the Hague. The international community would be well served if someone stepped up to the plate and asked China to pay for the environmental loss. Funding for reef conservation could come from punitive damages levied against China, drawn from its assets wherever it does business outside its borders. Any takers?
While marine biologist Yeh can count on satellite tracking technology and luminaries like basketball legend Yao Ming and U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus to facilitate his advocacy, he can only do so much. It would take the clout of motivated government entities to decisively address the plight of the sea turtles.