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Sea Turtle Conservancy has been monitoring and protecting critical nesting beaches for endangered green turtles and Kemp’s ridley turtles for decades. The primary nesting site for green turtles in the Western Hemisphere is at Tortuguero, Costa Rica, where STC has worked since 1959. The main nesting site for Kemp’s ridleys is located in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. These coordinated efforts have stopped the decline of these species and both populations are showing signs of recovery.
This project was carried out within critical in-water foraging habitat in the Northeast Gulf of Mexico. Many of the juvenile sea turtles that grow up in this area were hatched at nesting sites around Central America and the Caribbean. Once they mature, a process that can take 20 years, these turtles will return to nesting sites throughout Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and other developing nations in Central America and the Caribbean, where they serve as critical drivers of ecotourism that many small coastal communities rely upon as a sustainable source of income. Financial support from World Nomads’ Footprints Network provided resources to carry out a program with the following primary goals:
STC launched an in-water sea turtle conservation program in the coastal waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico, focusing on turtle foraging habitat from Florida’s Panhandle south to Crystal River. Using a research vessel equipped with a tower for spotting turtles, STC conducted visual transect surveys covering 642 km of Florida’s northwest coast. Transect surveys involved driving STC’s research vessel for an average of 7 km, perpendicular to shore. If a sea turtle was spotted during a transect survey, its species and distance from the boat were recorded.
From September 2018 to June 2019, STC documented 356 loggerhead, green, Kemp’s ridley and hawksbill sea turtles during transect surveys. The majority of sea turtles recorded were green turtles (74%). STC discovered more than a dozen previously unreported “hot spots,” or areas of higher abundance of sea turtles, in this region. As more hot spots are discovered, STC will aim to figure out why the turtles congregate in these areas, and we will be able to use that data to inform conservation strategies.
The northern Gulf of Mexico serves as developmental habitat for young turtles that grow up and return to nesting beaches around the Caribbean and Latin America – where local communities are waiting on their return for their own sustainable livelihoods. By learning about why turtles are clustering in specific areas in the northern Gulf of Mexico, STC will be better able to advocate for the protection of this critical developmental habitat for sea turtles.
STC collected biological information needed to monitor the health and recovery of both sea turtle species that populate the Wider Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. By using a dip net, STC captured mostly green turtles during the timeframe of this project. Once a turtle was on the boat and made comfortable, staff measured and weighed the turtle, inspected it for signs of injury, and took blood samples from the turtle to determine its sex and its “natal beach” (the beach from which the turtle hatched).
As STC continues capturing and studying turtles in this area, the data will help us understand what proportion of turtles come from Costa Rica, Mexico and the rest of the Caribbean. STC also tags each turtle with a metal flipper tag and a PIT tag (similar to a dog microchip). Once staff collected information from captured turtles, they were released in the same area that they were found. By recording biometric information about the juvenile turtles inhabiting this area, STC will establish a baseline that will allow us to understand population trends and potential threats to survival.
While the coastline of the Northeastern Gulf of Mexico has been mostly spared from major coastal development, its fragile marine ecosystems still face a number of threats. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, one of the worst spills of its kind in the world, happened in the immediate vicinity. Scalloping and fishing seasons bring thousands of people to the area each year, leaving juvenile turtles vulnerable to boat strikes.
The area’s seagrass, which is the main food source for juvenile green turtles, is at risk from boat scarring, oil spills and impacts from climate change. During this grant period, STC tracked the amount of boat traffic and interacted with anglers on a daily basis to educate them on the importance of sea turtles to this region. When interacting with fishermen and community members, STC was respectful to local cultures and worked to avoid harmful impacts to the local community. STC needs locals to support turtle conservation and feel they are contributing in ways that don’t harm livelihoods, which is certainly achievable.
Another threat to sea turtles in this area, specifically to green turtles, are fibropapilloma tumors thought to be caused by land-based nutrient runoff. A majority of the green turtles STC caught during this grant period had fibropapilloma tumors. When turtles are found with life-threatening tumors or injury, STC rescues these turtles and transports them to one of several sea turtle rehabilitation centers operating in the region. Now that STC will have a permanent presence in this area, we will have the ability to track the severity of this threat to sea turtles and measure if it is increasing over time. As this project continues long-term, STC will work to decrease threats to sea turtles in this area through ongoing educational outreach, advocacy on behalf of the animals, and direct intervention to rescue sick and injured turtles.
As STC has traveled to remote areas of the Gulf of Mexico coastline, we have encountered dozens of local residents and fishermen who have approached us to thank us for working in the area protect the sea turtles. We were surprised to find so many local people supporting the project and even volunteering information about where they are spotting turtles in the water themselves.
As more knowledge is gained on the sea turtles in this region, STC will work with wildlife managers to reduce threats using effective long-term strategies. This project is a logical evolution of the work STC has carried out for six decades, and it is needed to ensure all the work invested over the years is not lost. The sea turtles themselves and coastal communities throughout the Caribbean and Latin America are counting on STC to protect the turtles while they growing up in the north Gulf of Mexico.
These turtles are known to return to nesting sites throughout Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and other developing nations in Central America and the Caribbean, where they serve as critical drivers of ecotourism that many small coastal communities rely upon as a sustainable source of income.