Recent possible cases of illegal poaching of sea turtles on Maui have prompted the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust to let the public know about a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of turtle poachers and any others who commit wildlife crimes.
HSUS and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) launched a reward tipline in January "to stop crimes against Hawaii's precious wildlife and to create a mechanism for the community to confidentially report criminal activity," said Inga Gibson, Hawaii director for HSUS.
"We encourage anyone with information about these or other illegal sea turtle killings to immediately report such information to authorities," she said in a news release.
This cord with what may be nooses is suspected of being used by poachers to drown green sea turtles. A shell of the underbelly of a turtle was found in the water nearby, and on shore a top shell was found.
ANITA WINTNER photo
A green sea turtle plastron, or underbelly, was found in the water off a Makena shoreline on Sept. 8.
ANITA WINTNER photo
The alert was posted Friday "in response to recent reports of illegal sea turtle killings on Maui and the discovery of shells and gear believed to be used to drown the turtles," a news release said.
Rene Umberger, director of For the Fishes, said that a supporter of the group found of belly piece of a green sea turtle and a hose with two nooses wrapped around coral heads on Sept. 8. Umberger and the woman returned to the Makena area the next day in the hopes of catching or identifying the poachers.
As they were walking along the beach, they spotted a green sea turtle shell tucked in the bushes along the beach.
"It was a big, beautiful shell," said Umberger, whose group works to protect coral wildlife.
In fact, the shell looked familiar to her. Umberger said she's been diving since the early 1980s and said that turtles swim with people these days. Due to efforts to protect turtles, the reptiles have lost their fear of swimmers, she said.
Umberger recalls a turtle with a notch in its shell near its tail from an injury that healed long ago; the shell of the turtle they found had a notch in the same area.
"It looked familiar . . . I knew this turtle," she said. "It was heartbreaking."
Hannah Bernard, president and co-founder of the Hawai'i Wildlife Fund, was asked to assist with the handling of the green sea turtle in Makena. The shell of the mature green sea turtle was about 3 feet long and 2 feet wide.
She was not ready to make "the leap" to call this case definitely poaching. Finding turtle parts alone does not make it case of poaching. The turtle could have been attacked by a shark or afflicted with tumors from fibropapilloma, said Bernard, who has been studying turtles for more than two decades.
Still, she knows that turtle poaching does occur.
"I feel like there could be poaching going on," said Bernard. "It's not a surprise to me."
In late August, for example, there was another report of possible turtle poaching. Turtle carcasses and parts that appeared to be severed were found in the South Maui area, said Laura Stevens, DLNR spokeswoman, on Friday.
The growing numbers of green sea turtles may make some feel like they can take one, Bernard said. She said that she has seen "with her own eyes" the green sea turtle population rebounding. In fact, there has been a petition to de-list the turtles.
"There is no question they are recovering," she said.
At the moment, however, sea turtles remain protected under state and federal laws. DLNR Chairman William Aila noted that even though a petition for de-listing was filed, "filing alone does not affect nor negate the protected status of these animals."
Under state law, killing a sea turtle may carry a fine up of to $10,000 and up to one year in jail. Under the federal Endangered Species Act, killing a turtle may result in fines exceeding $3,500 and up to one year in jail.
With the green sea turtle population growing, Bernard said it may be time to begin "a robust conversation" about Native Hawaiians taking turtles as part of their cultural practices.
"I am a proponent of a subsistence take," she said.
Studies need to done to determine if there is a sustainable population to institute such a program - and she is not sure there is - and the development of a management framework.
If a take program were developed, Bernard said she also would be concerned about the killing of the critically endangered hawksbill turtle by mistake.
Until that discussion takes place, it will remain illegal to kill sea turtles. Aila urged the public to act responsibly and not attempt to touch, disturb, feed, pursue, ride, harass, harm or injure the reptiles.
In January, HSUS funded the development of the confidential, toll-free tipline for the DLNR Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement (DOCARE) to report information on wildlife crimes. In addition to providing an extra incentive to nab wildlife criminals, the tipline allows people to remember one telephone number to report all wildlife crimes, said Gibson.
The tips are forwarded automatically to DOCARE enforcement officers.
"It streamlines the reporting process," she said.
From time to time, DOCARE will highlight a particular crime, such as the turtle at Makena. Tipline-reward postings also have been offered for the illegal killing of four monk seals, two each on Kauai and Molokai, and the illegal transport and release of deer from Maui on the Big Island, a news release said.
"The Maui Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement continues to work with its federal partner agencies in investigating the killing of these sea turtles. We are asking for the public's assistance in providing information to enable us take law enforcement action against the perpetrators of these crimes," said Clarence Yamamoto, Maui DOCARE branch chief.
Anyone with information on the illegal killing of sea turtles is asked to call the HSUS/DLNR reward tipline at (855) DLNRTIP (356-7847).
Stranded and entangled sea turtles should be reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at (808) 983-5730.
For more information on the HSUS/DLNR reward tip-line, go to the website humanesociety.org/hawaii_rewards.
* Lee Imada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.