Captive endangered turtles return to the sea.
By Kathleen Wood, Department of Environment & Maritime Affairs ~ Photos By Amdeep Sanghera, TCI Turtle Project
For ten endangered sea turtles—six green turtles and four hawksbills—it was a long journey from a fisher’s boat back to the sea, but on January 30, 2013, they finally swam home, thanks to the combined efforts of DEMA, the TCI Turtle Project, the Department of Agriculture and Bugaloo’s Restaurant in Five Cays.
Over the past several months, the Department of Environment & Maritime Affairs (DEMA), the TCI Turtle Project and the Department of Agriculture have been fielding reports about sea turtles being kept in a pond at Bugaloo’s Restaurant in Five Cays. Upon investigation, it was discovered that the restaurant was purchasing the turtles from fishers in order to keep them from being harvested for food.
The harvest of sea turtles for food is an important cultural activity and has been for many generations in the Turks & Caicos. The TCI has a legal turtle fishery. The Fisheries Protection Ordinance prohibits the taking of turtles smaller than 20 inches and/or 20 pounds; however, this means the larger and reproductively-valuable turtles can be legally taken. There is a strong belief that TCI’s nesting turtle population has been declining over the past few decades, likely due to the historical harvest and the present-day fishery.
Since 2008, the TCI Turtle Project has been working closely with local fishers, communities and government agencies to develop a new turtle fishery management plan that will give protection to the large, breeding adult turtles found in TCI waters, while still respecting the right of Turks Islanders to harvest this important resource. The project has been extremely successful in its aim, and the culmination of the TCI Turtle Project’s efforts will be revised legislation that protects TCI’s remnant nesting population of breeding adult turtles and those from elsewhere, as well as juveniles. By working with local fishers, the TCI Turtle Project has been able to achieve these revisions with the participation and approval of all affected stakeholders.
Although it is legal to fish for turtles in TCI, and the few that are taken each year does not threaten the population, the idea of a turtle fishery can be a hard cookie to swallow for some. Thus, Bugaloo’s Restaurant, thinking they were performing a good deed, purchased the turtles from fishers.
Sea turtles are migratory animals, often covering thousands of miles within a few months’ time. They require vast amounts of open space and subsist on a specialized diet of sea grasses, sponges and soft corals. While intentions were good, Bugaloo’s Restaurant did not have suitable facilities, food supply or the specialized training needed to adequately care for the turtles.
Wanting to do the right thing, Bugaloo’s Restaurant worked with DEMA, the TCI Turtle Project and the Department of Agriculture to come to an agreement to release the turtles from the pond. Bugaloo’s will convert their pond to freshwater, and DEMA will donate some rescued freshwater turtles and tilapia to their pond. The freshwater turtles are much more suited to life in a pond, and the sea turtles will be back in the open ocean where they belong.
On a balmy and clear afternoon, Amdeep Sanghera of the TCI Turtle Project and DEMA Conservation Officers, Robert (“Mike”) Hanchell, Trevor Williams and Calvin (“Carl”) Been rolled up their trousers and waded into the murky waters of Bugaloo’s pond to capture the captive turtles for the last time in their potential 100-year lives.
Eight small turtles, ranging in size from 15 to 25 inches, were easy targets and were swiftly removed with a hand-held net. Two older, larger females of breeding age did not prove as easy to capture. Measuring as much as 35 inches and weighing approximately 150 pounds, they carefully eluded capture, until an effort of collective might was able to seize the goliaths and heave them out of the pond.
When the rescue operation was completed, the turtles were transported to the Bight Park for measuring, tagging and releasing. One of the large breeding female turtles had been injured when she was captured by a fisher, and had a large puncture wound in one of her flippers. During transportation from the pond to the park, the injury opened up and started bleeding. Fortunately, Government Veterinarians Dr. Mark Butler and Dr. Lance Dowridge were close at hand and arrived at the scene to suture and sterilize the injury. Once the bleeding was staunched and all the turtles were tagged and measured, the team and a small group of residents and visiting tourists carried the turtles to the beach.
The natural instinct of a wild animal to seek out its habitat is a marvel to behold. The turtles needed no direction or encouragement. The small gathering of humans held their breath as the animals eagerly scooted themselves across the sand, with a mixture of emotions ranging from awe to joy and relief. A few tears were shed.
As the sun set over Grace Bay, a long ordeal was over, and ten weary souls paddled through the breaking waves, gaining momentum and speed within the first few feet of the shore and then darting towards freedom into the open sea. We wish them bon voyage on their journey home.
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Cover photographer Christine Morden works for Paradise Photography www.myparadisephoto.com , a full service boutique company based in the TCI. She especially enjoyed the Rejouvenance photo shoot to learn about the benefits of coconuts and to smell the amazing scents of their hand-crafted products.