- Special Projects
There’s a euphoric little scene in the animated film “Finding Nemo” where the father of the clownfish title character latches onto a sea turtle and takes a wild ride in the ocean currents.
Maybe that’s what inspired some local teens to grab a honu earlier this month in the waters of Waimea Bay.
There’s no reason anyone who lives in the Aloha State should not know that touching, feeding, riding, pursuing, harming or otherwise altering a turtle’s behavior is illegal, he said.
Noting the possible exception of a foreign tourist who just landed in Hawaii, Aila said that even then people should have enough common sense to know that these are wild animals that should be respected.
The June 11 incident at Waimea Bay ended with someone who was swimming nearby stopping and scolding the teens who then skulked off, leaving the turtle alone.
The green sea turtle got a respite, but as it swam along in the shallow waters along the coastline it encountered another group of kids and adults, who similarly started touching it and pointing their underwater cameras toward its face.
The scenes were observed — and photographed — by a witness who shared the photos with Civil Beat on condition of anonymity. The photographer fears possible retribution from the turtle-harassing kids, their friends and families.
“I don’t know if the message is getting through to everyone we want.”
Aila’s department works with the feds to raise public awareness and take enforcement action — ranging from verbal warnings to hefty fines — when necessary.
But it’s hard. There are thousands of miles of coastline and far more acres of water to police. Plus, many witnesses are reluctant to make an official statement for fear of retribution from culprits.
“I don’t feel comfortable with the level of enforcement,” Aila said. “But that’s a product of resources. We always ask the Legislature for more resources, but we haven’t been successful and we can’t be everywhere at the same time.”
Pat Opay, the endangered species branch chief of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service’s Protected Resources Division, shares that struggle.
“Our bottom line is we’d like people to know these animals are protected,” he said. “You can enjoy them, but respect them from a distance.”
Opay said officers are not interested in going after people who touch a turtle by accident. But if someone is knowingly and persistently ignoring the rules, enforcement is an option.
“We don’t like to go down that road,” he said. “But if someone is blatantly sticking their nose out at us and don’t want to abide by any proper etiquette, we’ll investigate.”
There is a joint state and federal effort to educate people through everything from signs at beaches and informational pamphlets to talks at hotels and schools.
“We’re trying to hit it from all angles,” Opay said. “I don’t know if the message is getting through to everyone we want.”
Bill Pickering, special agent in charge of NOAA’s Pacific Islands region, said the feds receive roughly five to eight calls a month about people harassing sea turtles in Hawaii.
He was on standby Friday after a call came in about a dead turtle on the beach in Haleiwa. Normally, he said, it turns out the turtle died of natural causes. But when it turns out otherwise, he dispatches agents to investigate and the site is treated like a crime scene.
In 2011, Oahu professional surfer Jamie O’Brien became the subject of a federal investigation after posting a photo on Facebook of himself on the back of a sea turtle. He was trying to spread awareness of fibropapillomatosis, a disease of unknown origin that poses a serious threat to sea turtles, but when the picture went viral there was a big backlash.
Pickering said the investigation revealed the photo was taken in Indonesia, where turtles aren’t protected by U.S. laws. If the incident had occurred in Hawaii, he said, the feds would have probably issued a written warning or pursued a fine.
O’Brien was nonetheless remorseful and acknowledged his mistake, Pickering said. Lesson learned.
Photos of the teens harassing the turtles at Waimea Bay have been forwarded to state and federal officials. The matter is under review.
The number of green sea turtles is rising, along with Hawaii’s population and the number of people who visit the islands. Officials acknowledged the likelihood of an increasing number of interactions between humans and honu, but said this is no excuse for people to bother the creatures.
The feds just finished a global status review on green sea turtles, Opay said. A report is expected to come out within the next two months with a recommendation on whether the honu should remain protected as a “threatened” species, be upgraded for additional protection as “endangered” or be delisted altogether.
The Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs filed a petition Feb. 16, 2012, asking NOAA to classify the green sea turtle in Hawaii as a distinct population segment and delist it under the Endangered Species Act.
NOAA Fisheries made a positive 90-day finding Aug. 1, 2012, determining that the petitioned action may be warranted, which prompted the comprehensive status review.
Even if the honu is delisted though, state law would still protect it. But the Legislature could change that if it found merit in the federal decision.
A one-year public comment period will begin after the report of the finding is published, likely in August, Opay said.
“One of the cool things about Hawaii, whether you’re local or a tourist, is we’ve got nature,” he said. “What we’re trying to get people to realize is that as neat as they are, you’ve got to respect the animals.”