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Project background

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.  

However, protecting nesting beaches is just one step in ensuring the full recovery of sea turtle populations. Green turtles and Kemp’s ridleys are highly migratory and spend different phases of their lives in different locations. It is essential that conservation programs are carried out where sea turtles spend most of their lives – in the water. Juvenile green turtles spend their time foraging on productive seagrass beds (also known as developmental habitat). The coastal waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico provide important development habitat for young green turtles that were hatched all over the Wider Caribbean. Young Kemp’s ridleys also are found there in large numbers.

Unfortunately, there are no systematic monitoring and conservation programs in place to track the populations and address growing threats, such as:

  • ingestion and entanglement in marine debris;
  • habit degradation;
  • commercial fishing, boat strikes;
  • diseases related to water quality; and
  • climate change.

These threats must be understood and reduced in order to ensure that the decades of conservation work is not lost. 

Project overview

STC is embarking on a new phase of its project to monitor and protect juvenile sea turtles that live in the shallow coastal waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico. With initial funding from the Footprints Network two years ago, STC initiated a first-of-its-kind assessment of turtle populations in this region of the Gulf. We found that these turtles migrate to the region as young turtles after hatching on nesting beaches throughout the Caribbean and Central America. They use this part of the Gulf as developmental habitat and essentially grow up in this region before returning as adults to their home beaches to mate and nest themselves.

With new support from the Footprints Network, STC will conduct critical monitoring, protection and public outreach efforts on behalf of this important turtle population. This work will safeguard young sea turtles that grow up to become essential components of the marine ecosystems and ecotourism economies of many small coastal communities in the Caribbean and Central America.

During the initial phase of this project, STC identified what can be described as major hotspots for turtles in the northern Gulf. This new phase will focus on gathering information about the seasonal movements of sea turtles in this habitat, collecting essential information about main threats to the turtles and working directly with local communities and fishermen to decrease both accidental and illegal killing of turtles in the Gulf of Mexico.

The project involves monitoring carried out at regular intervals throughout each year. The work will take place on an STC research vessel that accommodates a team of 4-6 people. The project will include:

  1. A catch and release tagging program to collect important biometric data about turtles found in this habitat.
  2. A satellite-tracking program to track the fine-scale movements and habitat usage of representative individuals from the population (data from tracking also helps identify specific threats the turtles may be facing in the region and as they migrate).
  3. A rescue effort to recover sick and injured turtles for transport to nearby turtle rehabilitation facilities.
  4. A public outreach campaign targeting commercial and recreational fishing communities in the region, with the goal of reducing interactions between turtles, boats and fishing gear.

Through this program, STC will collect biological information needed to monitor the health and recovery of both green and Kemp’s ridley turtles that populate the Wider Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. They also will reduce threats encountered by the turtles while they are growing up in the Northern Gulf of Mexico – before they leave the region to join the adult nesting populations of the region.  

What's covered in project cost

The $20,000 raised by the Footprints Network will go towards the following:

  • Salary for the lead project biologist – $5,000
  • Research supplies and equipment – $6,000
  • Satellite-tracking equipment and fees – $500
  • Boat operating costs (gas, repairs, storage, insurance) – $5,000
  • Transportation, lodging and meals during research trips – $3,500

Partners and community involvement

The success of this project will be improved greatly by the direct involvement and support of local commercial and recreational fishing communities in the north Gulf of Mexico. STC will be conducting community outreach at the outset of the project to increase awareness about the presence of sea turtles in coastal waters and the various threats posed by human activities in the region. Most importantly, STC will work with communities to reduce threats in ways that are respectful to local cultures and avoid harmful impacts to the local community. We need locals to support turtle conservation and feel they are contributing in ways that don’t harm livelihoods, which is certainly achievable. 

In addition to involving local communities, this project is critical to the health and sustainability of indigenous Caribbean communities that rely on sea turtle eco-tourism for their survival. The north Gulf of Mexico is literally the cradle of the 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.  

Project partners include the Nature Coast Biological Station and the University of Florida.

Part of a larger strategy

The Sea Turtle Conservancy is the oldest sea turtle research and conservation organization in the world. Its work spawned the global movement to protect sea turtles, and the techniques developed by STC to monitor and protect sea turtles are in use around the globe. While sea turtles are relatively easy to protect on land, the reality is that they spend 99% of their lives in the water, where conservation efforts are much more difficult to carry out. STC has the experience and the commitment to conduct this in-water work, and this project will fill an important role in the larger, ongoing effort to protect and recover sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere. 

This project in the north Gulf of Mexico fits perfectly with the decades-long sea turtle monitoring and protection program initiated by Sea Turtle Conservancy in the 1950s. Over the years, this work has spread to many of the critical nesting beaches for sea turtles in the Caribbean and Latin America, where great success has been achieved on behalf of these animals. Nevertheless, many threats still confront sea turtles, which can only be addressed by doing the hard work of monitoring and protecting sea turtles in the water – and in areas that are used by turtles during different phases of their lives.

The proposed 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 as they mature in the north Gulf of Mexico.

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