DUTCH CARIBBEAN — Seven species of sea turtles inhabit the oceans; these reptiles have thrived throughout the evolutionary timeline differentiating into the turtles we protect today.
Of the seven, two have limited ranges: the Kemp’s Ridley (Western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico) and the Flatback sea turtles (Australian waters).
The Green, Loggerhead, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley sea turtles have a wider distributional range throughout the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, mainly in the tropical and subtropical areas. The top contender (in size and range) amongst all sea turtles is the Leatherback. This extraordinary species has the widest distribution extending into Canadians waters.
The Green, Loggerhead, Hawksbill and Leatherback have been documented to nest on our islands in the Dutch Caribbean: Aruba, Bonaire Curaçao, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten — Saba being the only island not known as a successful turtle-nesting destination due to the lack of sandy beaches. The rare and outstanding presence of the Olive Ridley in the Dutch Caribbean is generally attributed to a lost-in-migration individual.
What triggered sea turtle protection around the world?
With surmounting environmental trends not congruent with nature, the marine and coastal areas have been dynamically threatened by anthropogenic and natural disturbances. The species that experienced a severe population decline in the Pacific Ocean was the Leatherback. In the 1980’s the concern to protect and save this species from extinction initiated a sea turtle conservation revolution across the globe.
When scientific research was conducted to assess the population of Leatherbacks, evidence showed that it had become a highly threatened species. When opening Pandora’s box to counteract a series of unwanted events, one by one, all the species of sea turtles were labelled as a threatened species, following the IUCN criteria — a few more susceptible than others as populations were being decimated.
The environmental movement that transcended in the eastern coast of the U.S. [some 25 years ago], opened the venue for sea turtle protection when international laws were drafted and implemented to conserve the globes rich biodiversity. The conservation laws would then become a sentinel for flora and fauna to preserve ecosystems species thrive on. The attention on pressing issues in the first decade of the transition to a more environmental conscious society, spurred a historical change towards sea turtle conservation in the years to come, as alarming evidence on mortality rate appeared to be increasing!
Sea Turtle Conservation in the Dutch Caribbean
The concept of ‘Sea Turtle Conservation’ started as an initiative and its adherence resonated worldwide as a passion to conserve turtles.
The Dutch Caribbean marine parks and protected beaches are a haven for sea turtles. Swimming in the big blue we have our local sea turtles — hatchlings and juveniles ‘born’ from the sands of our islands. Turtles that have hatched on our beaches spend some time in our waters preparing for a long journey towards other nautical realms. Understanding the dynamics within breeding and feeding grounds is essential to protect turtles — emphasizing on the importance to know their life cycle. It is crucial to know as much as we can of sea turtles to ensure their longevity and preservation of the species.
What affects our sea turtles?
Poaching, predation, coastal erosion and infrastructure development are threats that contribute to the decline in sea turtle populations. Beach erosion links to a loss in coastal habitats sea turtles utilise as nesting grounds — an unhealthy beach decreases in number of nests.
A causal effect for sea turtles in the marine environment, which turns out to be a tragedy, is when they come in contact with debris. Plastic bags, foam and other fragmented solid waste can be ingested, harming turtles. Fishing line can be very hazardous in a turtle’s digestive track and can also lead to limb damage when entanglement occurs! Fishing nets are also a hazard, drowning trapped turtles if they are not rescued in time. When observing the effects of anthropogenic disturbances increasing mortality rates, what is the next step to be taken in preventing further loss?
Protecting sea turtles
Environmental organisations aim to understand patterns tied to factors contributing to population decline of sea turtles. This in turn enables conservationists to strategize measures to help mitigate the threats and loss of our sea turtle species.
Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire (STCB) is the legal nongovernmental research and conservation organisation that has been protecting sea turtles since 1991. One of the successful projects that STCB runs is the satellite tracking of post breeding turtles by fitting them with a transmitter on their carapace after nesting and following them from their nesting grounds to their second home, their feeding grounds.
On the threats side of the coin, assessing the level of damage on afflicted sea turtles encountered in time can be saved if an expert is at hand to examine the affected individual. Sea turtle biologists or any other person involved in sea turtle protection can contact veterinarians, and what is better than having one with expertise on sea turtles?
The Regional Cooperation – saving sea turtles!
STCB also serves as a regional leader for sea turtle conservation. In October, Mabel Nava, Sea Turtle Biologist and Manager of STCB, executed an in-water turtle assessment in St. Maarten with the Nature Foundation St. Maarten, demonstrating the strength of the regional alliance. Part of the team consisted of Tadzio Bervoets, Manager of Nature Foundation St. Maarten and Dr. Claire Saladin, a veterinarian who ventured into the sea turtle conservation programme of the island. (Photo below: the 2012 St. Maarten Turtle Monitoring Workshop crew).
Dr. Saladin along with Dr. Fulco de Vries (Bonaire’s Vet) attended the 2012 Sea Turtle Workshop in Florida on December 2nd-4th. The workshop had ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ lab sessions. Turtle necropsies were performed and the workshop was packed with useful hands-on approaches on how to collect relevant information on affected turtles. The Turtle Hospital organized the workshop for 20th year.
There were about 119 participants and we are proud to have had representation from the Dutch Caribbean. There was also a silent auction sale to raise funds for WIDECAST, the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Network. Here at DCNA, we are also enthusiastic that we are gaining more island expertise in the realm of sea turtle conservation.