By Jeremy Hance
On Friday, eleven Chinese fishermen were caught by Filipino police with 555 marine turtles, 378 of which were dead. Officials in the Philippines have since released the 177 living turtles. But the incident has sparked an international standoff between the Philippines and China as the Chinese nationals were arrested in disputed waters in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has charged nine of the 11 poachers over the incident—two were released because they were minors. Those charged could face 12-20 years in prison for poaching a Critically Endangered species, in this case the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). But China has demanded the release of the remaining fishermen and the boat, which was confiscated.
The Chinese fishermen were apprehended about on the Banyue Reef, about 95 kilometers (60 miles) off the coast of Palawan, a Filipino island, and may face illegal entry charges as well as the area falls into the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
But China has sent a diplomat to Palawan to check on the fishermen and ask for their release. China has called the arrests "provocative."
However the Philippine's Interior Secretary, Mar Roxas, defended the actions by the Philippine National Police (PNP) Maritime Group.
"What I can say is that it was a normal routine patrol. We are just following the law...The area was just [90 kilometers\ away from Philippine soil. How can that be provocative?" he said. "It’s also in accordance with an international treaty on the protection of endangered species, of which both the Philippines and China are signatories."
At least two marine turtle species were found on the boat, Hawksbill sea turtles and green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), which is categorized as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Of the surviving turtles, 11 were hawksbill and 91 green marine turtles.
For millennia, sea turtle meat and eggs were important part of many peoples' diets around the world. However, overhunting, pollution, climate change, and killed as bycatch by industrial fisheries have pushed all of the world's marine turtles toward extinction. Of the seven marine turtles, two are listed as Critically Endangered, two as Endangered, two as Vulnerable, and one as Data Deficient. All seven, however, are listed as Appendix I on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meaning that commercial trade is illegal for all marine turtles.