turtles, leatherback turtles, pacific leatherback turtles, international law, environmental law, marine wildlife protection, UNCLOS, CITES, legislation, environmental law, environmental policy, marine law


The leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), sometimes called the lute turtle, is the largest of all living turtles. It is the fourth- heaviest modern reptile behind three crocodilians. These species are categorized as critically endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. These turtles avail pro- tection under the Convention on Illicit Trade in Endangered Species (CITES); a treaty enacted to protect wildlife against over-exploita- tion and with an aim to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The said treaty is applicable to species in general unless a specific exception applies. However, inasmuch as these turtles are concerned, it pro- hibits all trade for “primarily commercial purposes”. The reproduc- tion rate of these turtles is extremely low and their nesting beaches are un-protected. As a corollary, many perpetrators, like various communities of ‘peoples’ consume their eggs. In addition to the wide- spread consumption of turtle eggs in Mexico, the indigenous Seri In- dians also used leatherback sea turtles during important cultural cer- emonies. Moreover, these turtles are killed as a ‘by-catch’ while shrimps are caught within shrimp nets for the fisheries industry. The killing of these turtles disrupts the oceanic food chain as they feed on jellyfish, which if increases, could reduce the population of commercially viable fish.

The entire debate which emanates here is that, although various communities of “peoples” have a cultural right to self-determination under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the rights of fishing these turtles beyond their territories is prohibited by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD).

This paper endeavors to analyze the applicability of these conventions to the situation at hand, along with the efforts made by var- ious countries in their domestic legislations to conserve these turtles and their nesting beaches. The bone of contention which also comes to the fore here is the question of ‘who has the right to conserve these turtles?’, considering that these turtles have extraterritorial move- ments and any conservation measures can only possibly be taken in the high seas. The paper also tries to address the said pertinent issue.