“This is the 74th sea turtle we have rescued in the last four years,” said Mau Gawad Hamada, founder of the Alexandria Turtle and Wildlife Rescue Team, an NGO, as she was releasing it back into the sea off Alexandria last week.
While every release of a sea turtle is accompanied by huge crowds and marine lovers who accompany Hamada and her team, a recent survey has shown that the killing of the sea turtles is still going on despite the official and non-official campaigns that have been gaining strength across the Mediterranean city.
“When someone sees turtles being sold in markets in Alexandria, they call us to go to rescue them and stop them from being slaughtered,” Hamada said.
The team collects money from its members to buy turtles from sellers so they can be saved and released back into the sea. This time round, the team reached an illegal trader in the fish market at just the right time to buy the turtles from him so that they could release them back into the sea.
“We must be prepared at all times for calls that might save an endangered marine life species,” Hamada said.
The illegal trader who was selling the turtles was later arrested by the Alexandria Water Authority and the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency and charged under Article 28 of the environment law that stipulates that it is forbidden to hunt, possess, transport or circulate and sell endangered wild birds and animals.
“Though the article is clear, illegal traders do not always get imprisoned as they are released from jail after serving a one-day sentence and paying a small fine,” Hamada added.
Mohamed Nada, head of the Save the Sea Turtle Project, said that sea turtle populations have declined throughout the Mediterranean and particularly off the coast between Alexandria and Salloum.
There were various reasons, he said, including direct exploitation, the destruction of nesting sites due to the rapidly expanding tourist industry, incidental capture in fisheries, and a lack of awareness among the public.
Since Hamada’s team was founded in 2014, the group has been raising awareness among local populations of the serious threat to sea turtles.
“People do not always know. Sometimes even fishermen and fish traders are not aware of the risks when they catch a sea turtle, and raising awareness is one of the main goals of the group.”
“There has been a lot of progress. It is often local people, sometimes vendors and children, who call us if they see sea turtles in a market or being washed out to sea,” Hamada added.
In addition to stopping the illegal trade in sea turtles, the group has also helped bring foreign consulates and civil society groups on board to raise awareness about the environmental changes affecting them.
A recent report has shown that the world has lost up to 60 per cent of its wild life over the past 50 years. It shows the devastating effect of the human species homo sapiens on planet Earth.
The British Consulate in Alexandria has been hosting events to support the Alexandria Turtle and Wildlife Rescue Team and raise awareness about wild life in the city. From cleaning beaches to hosting conferences and securing funds, the consulate has made valuable efforts in this vital cause.
British Consul in Alexandria Wendy Freeman told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the best way I have found in trying to address this pressing issue is to raise awareness and to educate people.
I have been supporting Mau by helping her raise awareness and get the message out. She is protecting sea turtles, which are an endangered species. But I also help her to protect wildlife and stray animals by promoting compassion to animals.”
“Whether you are in Egypt, in the UK, or elsewhere in the world, the best way is to raise awareness among people because it is people who have the most impact on animals,” Freeman said.
The consulate offers what help and support it can, including by hosting the first conference on sea turtles in Alexandria last year that brought together experts from marine life and northern environment authorities as well as the Egyptian customs authorities and schools to help people understand the benefits of sea turtles.
“When people understand the benefits of sea turtles, including that the turtles eat the jelly fish that have been threatening Egypt’s shores, they will stop killing them. The more turtles there are, the less jelly fish there will be and the more tourists there will be,” Freeman said, adding that the consulate had helped to mark World Wildlife Day in Alexandria and the beach clean-up drive sponsored by the British embassy.
The unofficial actions of the British consulate to protect marine life and wildlife in Alexandria comes in parallel to the British government’s priorities this year. One of these is to support environmental protection, especially by removing plastic from the seas and eradicating the illegal trade in wildlife.
Removing plastic from the world’s seas and oceans has topped government agendas because of the unprecedented decline in marine life threatening many species. “The fact is that plastic bags have been found in turtles, and when they eat the plastic they die,” Freeman added.
“This plastic is choking the world’s marine life. Our role is to encourage people to stop using plastic, and I will keep doing what I can to support the campaign.”
Banning Plastic Bags
According to a report by the World Economic Forum, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050 when plastic bags will outnumber fish in the world’s seas and oceans.
According to the report, the world’s use of plastic has increased 20 fold over the past 50 years, and it is expected to triple in the next 20.
Since Alexandria is one of the largest African cities with a population that exceeds eight million, it is also one of the largest waste-disposal sites in the Mediterranean Sea.
A recent report conducted by the Oceanography Department at Alexandria University monitored the physical and chemical nature of major land-based sources of pollution near the Alexandria coast, concluding that the effect of the disposal of untreated waste was very clear on marine life, which had been very seriously affected in areas downstream of such land-based sources.
Member of Alexandria Turtle and Wildlife Rescue Team hold a sea turtle (Photo: courtesy the team)
The discharge of waste in these areas had created unacceptable environmental conditions that do not support marine life in ecologically important ways.
“This was very clearly seen in recent years when we realised the impact plastic bags were having on marine life in the Alexandria sea belt,” said Ahmed Yassin, founder of the city’s Make a Contribution Club (MAC), a local environment group.
The club has organised initiatives to ban plastic bags in Alexandria in parallel with government efforts to replace traditional plastic bags with eco-friendly ones.
“If we start from our own homes, things will be easier,” said Yassin, who has identified three steps that should be followed to halt the discharge of waste into the sea. “First, divide your waste into organic and recycled.
Second, reuse the plastic you already have at home. Third, use cloth bags instead of plastic ones when doing any shopping,” he advised.
If these things are applied by houses, clubs, institutions and factories in the city, Alexandria will be the number one in Egypt to ban plastics.
Cleaning up the city’s beaches is also a priority for the MAC club this year, as it organises clean-ups of the most polluted ones in Alexandria.
“If we can ban throwing plastic into the sea, some turtles and marine life species will survive. People should realise that by changing their behaviour we can make a difference and make a great contribution to marine conservation,” Yassin said.
“It is sad to see a turtle die because of a straw stuck in its stomach, or a dolphin getting tangled up in a plastic bag. If we can stop these things, then let’s get together and stop them,” he concluded.
More On Turtles
The first records of hunting sea turtles in Alexandria are by British zoologist and conservationist Stanley Flower in 1933, when he reported seeing a large loggerhead turtle at the Alexandria fish market.
Almost 50 years later, Mohamed Nada in a study published in 2001 described the sea-turtle trade in Egypt and said the declining number of sea turtles was due not only to illegal fishing but also to low nesting figures for marine turtles compared to other areas in the Mediterranean, with nests scattered along the coastline.
Sometimes, the nests are washed away by tourism projects. A satellite tracking study conducted in 2000 showed that Egyptian waters were visiting sites on the female green turtle migration route. After nesting in Northern Cyprus, five out of six female green turtles visit Egyptian waters as a wintering area, which means that Egypt is primary destination for marine sea turtles.
Earlier studies in the 1990s revealed that nesting female populations are as low as 2,000 loggerhead turtles and 300 to 400 green turtles nesting each year. However, as Nada suggested, Egypt remains a serious threat to remaining sea turtle populations due to illegal fishing practices and illegal sales.
Sea turtles act as grazing animals, cutting sea grass beds and helping to maintain their health. “Without the sea grass beds, many marine species would be lost, as would lower levels of the food chain,” Ahmed Gamey, an animal specialist, told the Weekly.
There is little or no vegetation on dunes or beaches on the North Coast, and this can also be a threat to sea turtles.
“When the turtles lay their eggs on the Alexandria beaches, very few hatch properly due to poor vegetation of the industrial or tourist projects constructed near the shore. These destroy the local food chains and ecosystems,” Gamey explained.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Saving the sea turtles