When it comes to boasting rights for marine life, Tobago can brag, particularly regarding her sea turtles.
Tobago’s waters host the Leatherback, Olive Ridley, Loggerhead, Green and Hawksbill, five of the seven marine turtles found globally.
All of these species are at risk of global extinction. As recently as last week, the community conservation group North East Sea Turtles (NEST) celebrated as they recorded Leatherbacks, Hawksbills and an elusive Green nesting on the rugged, remote, north-eastern beaches of Tobago. However, much as we celebrate this rich natural heritage, we cannot take it for granted.
A less prominent but nonetheless important part of the relationship between Tobago and her turtles is the consumption of turtle meat and, to a lesser extent, turtle eggs. In October 2011, hunting and eating sea turtles became illegal in Trinidad and Tobago. According to the law “No person shall, at any time, kill, harpoon, catch or otherwise take possession of any turtle, or purchase, sell, offer or expose for sale or cause to be sold or offered for sale any turtle or turtle meat”. In spite of the new law, however, harvesting, sale and consumption of turtle meat continue.
One man raising his passionate voice for these magnificent creatures is community activist, Rupert "Smokey" McKenna. Chatting with McKenna, one cannot help but feel inspired. Smokey is well known throughout Tobago. He gained his nickname because of his sweet hand and mouth-watering smoked food but Smokey’s talents are not limited to his culinary skills.
McKenna is one of the foremost environmental voices of Tobago and a driving force for positive change in the communities of Speyside, Charlotteville and the island of Tobago.
Smokey’s opinion and advice are actively sought out by many groups and agencies given his 30-year working experience with often highly contentious community and environmental matters. He currently serves on the board of directors of the environmental NGO, Environment Tobago, is a founding and executive member of the community conservation group, the Speyside Eco Marine Park Rangers (SEMPR), is a member of North East Sea Turtles (NEST), runs a successful annual Youth Shoreline Fishing Tournament in Speyside, and is a well-known radio personality.
Smokey engages with environmental ills that are considered taboo and consequently, is not always the most popular guy on the block. McKenna, though, is not easily daunted.
Turtle soup, turtle stew and curried flipper
Why is eating turtle meat so popular in Tobago? According to McKenna, it is part of Tobagonian culture.
It is considered a delicacy and is eaten all year round. Turtle meat is associated with popular yearly village harvest festivals that occur in every village, as well as with weddings, christenings, and other celebratory events.
McKenna explained that there is no off-season for turtle hunting. In Tobago’s coastal communities, turtles are caught while nesting on beaches, nets are set in the sea and there are turtle-hunting professionals who can spear turtles in the water and drag them onto waiting boats where the turtle is chopped up and its shell thrown into the sea. The most popular species on the menu is the Hawksbill, followed by the Green.
If fishermen pull up a turtle, they can make more money ($30-50 a pound) than the most prized fish due to the popularity and high demand for turtle meat. Smokey points out that many community members are aware that it is illegal to harm a turtle but there is limited enforcement of the law and to elicit a change in people’s behaviour does not occur overnight.
McKenna can give these vivid details on turtle harvesting as, once upon a time, he also ate turtle.
Why did he stop?
At a turtle workshop sponsored by Global Environment Facility's Small Grants Programme/United Nations Development Programme (GEF/SGP/UNDP), McKenna bravely told his turtle-hunting tales to fellow conservationists. He started relating his experience by saying, “Turtle, I used to eat you, and I’m sorry.”
McKenna explained that because of his passion for the environment, he began to actively seek knowledge. He attended lectures, seminars and took the bold step of going back to school as an adult. He began to see these magnificent creatures as friends, not food as they share the same trials and tribulations as us. “I realised that very few of them survive. For one turtle to become an adult is a real accomplishment.” Eighty eggs does not mean 80 turtles.
These days, turtle patrol groups are ecstatic when they witness five or six hawksbills laying nightly on a remote beach in North-East Tobago. McKenna tells a different story.
He explained that Charlotteville and Speyside are but a shell of their former environmental glory. “Mother Earth is crying. There is agricultural runoff, sediment and waste water running directly into the sea. Our reefs are a shadow of what it was like 20, or even ten years ago.
Less fish, less coral, more waste. Hawksbills and leatherbacks would be laying in our yards. As a child in Charlotteville you would be making your way through turtles to get home. Those days are gone. We don’t have much turtles any more.”
Though eating turtle meat remains popular, studies are revealing that consumption of turtle meat and eggs may be harmful to human health.
Scientific literature points to worrying results that demonstrate that turtles bioaccumulate natural toxins, environmental contaminants (such as heavy metals), organochlorines (such as DDT and PCBs) and can carry parasites, viruses and bacteria that may have adverse health effects. Unlike regularly available meats like chicken or pork which are subjected to public health inspection, turtle meat is unregulated and could be severely contaminated.
Unfortunately, many of these toxins are not removed by cooking the meat properly. Mr. McKenna is part of a team that plans to set up a health monitoring programme for these contaminants.
Our changing world, our changing island
A conversation with Smokey reminds us of change. From his childhood on the beach in Charlotteville when the seine pulled in kingfish and turtles, to the empty seine nets that are pulled in today, McKenna speaks of how much we have already lost. Worse yet, as he explains, if current trends continue, we stand to lose a great deal more. What will Tobago look like without reefs, beaches, turtles, or forests? For Smokey, however, this is not a reason for resignation and despair. Rather, it is a powerful and passionate call to action, a call that he lives and shares every day. The question remains, are we listening?