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How we can end this barbaric practice and help communities develop turtle tourism as a sustainable business venture

How we can end this barbaric practice and help communities develop turtle tourism as a sustainable business venture

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by Rafique Bailey Ph.D. Entomology Tue Oct 22, 2013

Yes, it’s true. Sea turtles are been slaughtered at alarming rate in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), specifically on the Windward or Atlantic Coast of St Vincent. While there is a closed season for turtle hunting in SVG, the slaughtering of sea turtles on the beach at Georgetown and the surrounding areas is taking place. During the months of April to June 2013, I found eight massive shells (carapaces) from these ancient leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) on the beach. Figures 1 to 4 illustrate some of the shells (carapaces) and the plastron of slain leatherback turtles in Georgetown. From the size of the shells that were found, I estimate that the turtles must have weighed between 500 and 1,000 pounds. This species is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN red list, meaning that they have lost greater than or equal to 80 per cent of their population.{{more}} In the Caribbean, sea turtle populations appears to be increasing thanks to conservation efforts in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, St Kitts & Nevis, Antigua & Barbuda, Grenada, Bonaire and St Eustatius. In my opinion, while there are laws in St Vincent and the Grenadines to protect sea turtles, there is little or no monitoring of the beaches by the law enforcement authorities or conservation officers of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. There are no NGOs dedicated to prevent poachers from killing these creatures when they come to lay their eggs on the beaches. In fact, there is a need for more public education and awareness in SVG about why it is important to protect these endangered species. There is also the need for the involvement of community groups who live near to the beaches where the turtles come to nest to help in their conservation.

According to McFadden (2013) in his article in the Huffington Post entitled “Sea Turtle Comeback: Giant Leatherback Numbers Rebound In Parts Of the Caribbean”, giant leatherback turtles are now commonly sighted on Trinidad’s eastern beaches of Grand Riviere and Matura, some weighing half as much as a small car. They drag themselves out of the ocean and up the sloping shore on the north-eastern coast of Trinidad, while villagers await wearing dimmed headlamps in the dark. Their black shells (carapaces) glistening in the dark, the turtles inch along the moonlit beach, using their powerful front flippers to move their bulky frames onto the sand. In the past, this was not possible as poachers from the neighbouring towns of Grand Riviere would ransack the turtles’ buried eggs and hack the critically threatened reptiles to death to sell their meat in the market. The turtles are now part of a thriving tourist trade, with people so devoted to them that they shoo birds away from the small turtles as they first start out as tiny hatchlings scurrying to the sea. The number of leatherbacks on this tropical beach has rebounded in spectacular fashion, with some 500 females nesting each night during the peak season between May and June, along the 800-metre-long beach. Researchers now consider the beach at Grand Riviere, alongside a river that flows into the Atlantic, the most densely nested site for leatherbacks in the world.

On a recent night, the protected beach was so busy that female leatherback turtles bumped into each other as they trudged up the sloping beach. Occasionally grunting from the effort, the big reptiles swept away powdery sand with their front flippers and then painstakingly dug holes with their rear flippers, laying dozens of white eggs before heading back to the ocean. These same females will be back in about 10 days to deposit more eggs (McFadden, 2013). Normally, a mature female lays about 80 eggs, a process they’ll repeat up to 12 times during the breeding season. In about two months, the striped babies will emerge (EarthWatch Institute).

The resurgence of leatherbacks in Trinidad is touted by many as a major achievement with more than half of all adult leatherbacks on the planet having been lost since 1980, mostly in the Eastern Pacific and Asia (McFadden, 2013).

According to the McFadden (2013) report, when local conservation efforts started in Grand Riviere in the early 1990s, the locals said that a maximum of 30 turtles emerged from the surf overnight during the peak of the six-month nesting season. Now, at Grande Riviere and in the eastern community of Matura, where another major leatherback colony has grown, locals say more than 700 of the turtles appear overnight at the very height of the season, in May and June.

Flourishing turtle tourism is providing good livelihoods for people in formerly dead-end farming towns, with the Trinidad-based group Turtle Village Trust saying it brings in some $8.2 million annually. The inflow of visitors, both domestic and foreign, to Trinidad’s north-east coast jumped from 6,500 in 2000 to over 60,000 in 2012. Officials with the US-based Sea Turtle Conservancy say Trinidad is now likely to be the world’s leading tourist destination for people to see leatherbacks (McFadden, 2013).

In a 2009 global study on the economics of marine turtle tourism, researchers from the environmental group World Wildlife Fund found turtle tourism earned nearly three times as much money as the sale of turtle meat, leather and eggs (McFadden, 2013).

While Trinidad supports some 80 percent of total leatherback nesting in the Caribbean, with a population of some 15,000 females laying eggs every two years, the turtles are also flourishing in other spots around the region. According to this same report, in northern Guyana, leatherbacks have become the most abundant marine turtle species instead of the rarest one, as it was in recent decades. In neighbouring Suriname, the creatures’ numbers have jumped tenfold, according to a 2007 assessment by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (McFadden, 2013).

Earlier this year, Puerto Rico protected a swath of beach along the island’s northeast coast that hosts over 400 nesting leatherbacks per year. In 2012, Florida wildlife officials surveyed some 250 miles of beaches and counted some 515 leatherback nests. Meanwhile, the Eastern Pacific leatherback population has collapsed to some 1,700 females, according to Aimee Leslie, marine turtle manager with the World Wildlife Fund (McFadden, 2013).

The number of Atlantic leatherbacks has likely grown due to a variety of factors such as nesting beach protections, modifications of fishing gear in some places and increased public awareness, according to Jeanette Wyneken, a sea turtle expert at Florida Atlantic University. Leatherbacks may have also encountered growing stocks of the food they depend upon, mostly jellyfish and gelatinous sea creatures called Salps (McFadden, 2013).

Len Peters, a founding member of the Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guide Association, which patrols and manages the Trinidadian village’s nesting beach, said local conservation hasn’t come easy. When he started out as a 23-year-old volunteer in the early 1990s, protecting turtles was rough, sometimes intimidating work. His group would physically drag people off the beach if they were bothering leatherbacks. “That kind of approach wasn’t really helping. People were becoming very aggressive toward us, called us the turtle police,” Peters said. “Now, the villagers here feel proud knowing that people come from all over the world to see the turtles. On a whole, the community has really embraced the opportunities these turtles have brought to them”(McFadden, 2013).

The Barbados Sea Turtle Project (BSTP) based at the University of the West Indies has been involved in the conservation of the marine sea turtles that forage and nest around Barbados through research, education and public outreach, as well as monitoring nestling females, juveniles and hatchlings. Their vision is to restore the local marine turtle’s population to levels where they can fulfill their ecological roles. Barbados is home to the second-largest hawksbill turtle nesting population in the wider Caribbean, with up to 500 females nesting per year. Turtle nesting occurs on most of the beaches around the island, many of which are heavily developed with tourism infrastructure. This presents both challenges and opportunities for sea turtle conservation. Sea turtles are now not only an important component of the biodiversity of Barbados, but have become an integral part of the attraction of a holiday in Barbados. A visitor to Barbados has a high likelihood of seeing at least one nesting hawksbill turtle during any two-week stay at any one of the hotels on the west and south coasts in the nesting season months of May-October. A scuba diving visitor can be assured of seeing at least one hawksbill on the offshore bank reef during any one-hour dive year round, and a visitor on a catamaran cruise will likely see several green turtles at the “Swim with the Turtles” sites (BSTP, 2010).

The BSTP operates a 24 hour “Sea Turtle Hotline” to monitor sea turtles sightings and address sea turtles’ emergencies. Hotel staff, visitors and beach users are encouraged to call when they see a turtle nesting or hatching, a nest threatened by high tides, or hatchlings disoriented by lights (BSTP, 2010).

The Barbados Sea Turtle Project monitors the national index nesting beach nightly for 4 months during the nesting season (June-September), operates mobile patrol groups that survey 15 other nesting beaches, and monitors juvenile hawksbills on the island’s west coast bank reef. They have also produced guidelines and developed printed materials to inform visitors on how to minimize any potential negative impacts of their visits on the turtles at the “Swim with the Turtles” sites. The BSTP has assisted in productions of sea turtle documentaries for the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, Canadian Broadcasting Company, BBC, the Discovery Channel, and various internet TV sites (e.g. Travelguru Internet TV).

The St. Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network (SKSTMN) is a community based non-profit organization founded in January 2003 which monitors nesting sea turtle populations and acts as an advocate for the strengthening of sea turtle protection laws in St. Kitts. St. Kitts serves as nesting ground for three (3) species of sea turtles, the Leatherback, Hawksbill and Green Turtle. The objectives of this community based organization is to develop a longstanding sea turtle conservation program, to provide community awareness about the plight of sea turtles and as an alternative to sea turtle harvest, provide non-consumable sources of income to communities.

Through a grant from the UNDP Global Environmental Facility small grants programs. Fishermen and local citizens were recruited and hired as full time technicians to collect scientific data regarding sea turtle management and health and to lead eco-tours. Technicians received training in data procurement, tagging and management procedures and tour implementation and enactment. An eco-tour program in which visitors accompanied by trained guides to observe nesting female Leatherbacks was develop in 2009. Income generated goes directly back into the project to cover salaries and outreach cost.

Through the efforts of volunteers, about 10000 pounds of marine debris were removed from nesting beaches. A creative outlet to use recovered glass debris from nesting beaches and neighbouring restaurant and bars was develop with the collaboration of WIDECAST, The Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Network. The glass bottles are heated with a torch and use to create recycled glass jewellery. Training and employment in this craft have been offered to six communities and four schools. The jewellery is marketed both nationally and internationally.

A multifaceted public outreach program focusing on visitors, local villages involve in fishing and local villages that are in close proximity to the Leatherback nesting areas was established. A sea turtle camp host one hundred children annually in a two week event focusing on sea turtle biology and natural history. The camp incorporates data collection, crafts and games into the learning process. Partnerships with local hotels has also been formed in which hotel staff are trained to implement sea turtle programs for their guests. Because of these activities, the St. Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network was awarded the most eco-friendly business award by the St. Kitts Tourism Authority in 2009.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Based on the success stories in other Caribbean countries, it is reasonable to believe that sea turtle conservation has the potential to be a viable industry in St. Vincent. The beaches on the Windward coast of St. Vincent (Georgetown, Byrea and Big Sand in Sandy Bay) serves as nesting grounds for Leatherback turtles while beaches on the Grenadines such as Bequia and Bloody Bay in Union may be used by Hawksbill and Green Turtles. These nesting grounds are currently under threat from natural elements such as erosion, human induced environmental pressures such as habitat destruction and modification, illegal sand mining, egg poaching, marine debris (plastic bags and bottles, pesticide containers, discarded electronic appliances, dead animals). There is also an open fishing season for sea turtles in St. Vincent where sea turtles are caught by fishermen using gill nets instead of trolling with hook and line. There is therefore an urgent need for the relevant authorities to address these issues in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Additionally, for this industry to reach its full potential, infrastructure for research, public outreach, tours, vendors and glass jewellery project must be developed adjacent to the main nesting beaches. The continued development of these projects and partnerships will ensure a brighter future for sea turtles and the communities that host them.

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