Green Pages

Time For Safekeeping

hawksbill-swimmingMarine Turtle Project
Story and Photos by Peter Richardson, Marine Conservation Society

Turks & Caicos Islanders have eaten turtles for centuries. Archaeological digs around the Islands have revealed that Taino settlers were heavily dependent on turtle meat and eggs long before these Islands were “discovered” by Europeans. These later colonists continued to exploit the rich marine turtle harvest long after the Caribbean tribes had been exterminated and these days, many Belongers and visitors alike enjoy a regular meal of either turtle steak, turtle stew or steamed turtle.

At least three species of marine turtle swim the seas around the Turks & Caicos. The loggerhead turtle is occasionally encountered, but by far the most common species here are the endangered green turtle (the preferred eating-turtle) and the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, which is also harvested for its meat. But there is still a legal harvest of marine turtles in the TCI.

For the last three years, I have been visiting the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) as part of a UK Government-commissioned project known as “Turtles in the Caribbean Overseas Territories” (TCOT). TCOT was a collaborative study coordinated by the University of Exeter in Cornwall and the UK’s Marine Conservation Society, which aimed to assess the status of marine turtles and their exploitation in Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands (BVI), Cayman Islands, Montserrat and TCI. The project involved a coalition of collaborating institutions in the UK and USA, as well as a range of project partners in each Territory. Our main collaborator here in TCI was the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR), and I will always be thankful for the time and resources they dedicated to ensure that the project was a success here.

TCOT’s final report was launched at the end of 2004, and included a suite of comprehensive Territory-specific recommendations to enhance the conservation and management of the turtle populations. Legal turtle harvests still occur in BVI, Cayman, Montserrat and TCI. Anguilla imposed a temporary ban on turtle fishing in 1995 as a result of local concerns about their depleted turtle populations. This moratorium is due to expire at the end of this year amid demands amongst the fishing community to resume the turtle fishery. Bermuda, on the other hand, permanently banned the take of turtles in its waters in 1973.

While the fishermen of BVI, Cayman and Montserrat still legally catch and consume turtles, none of these harvests matches that of the Turks & Caicos. According to TCOT estimates, between 240 and 1,130 green turtles are taken each year, as well as between 180 to 900 hawksbills, making the turtle fishery in TCI one of the largest regulated turtle fisheries in the Caribbean.

turtle-hatchlingsThe impacts of this harvest are unknown because in recent years there has been virtually no management or monitoring of the turtle fishery. However, TCOT surveys suggested that the nesting populations of green and hawksbill turtles have significantly declined in the last few decades. Several local participants in TCOT interviews recalled how, as children, they would regularly accompany their fathers to the beach, where nesting turtles were flipped and butchered and the eggs dug up on Providenciales, Salt Cay and Grand Turk. Nesting female turtles are rarely encountered on these islands now, and any turtle nesting activity we recorded during TCOT tended to be on remote cays and beaches. Sadly, it seems that historical exploitation has wiped out nesting populations from the most populated islands, leaving a few remaining females to nest on inaccessible and undeveloped beaches.

These nesting populations are largely unrelated to the aggregations of foraging turtles found in relative abundance on the Caicos Banks. TCOT surveys indicate that these turtles are mainly juveniles, and our genetic studies suggest that these young turtles may have originally hatched out on large nesting beaches in other turtle nesting areas around the Caribbean, such as those found in Costa Rica, Mexico and the USA. Some may have even originated from the beaches on Ascension Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean.

The good news is that nesting populations in these countries are protected and well monitored and their numbers appear to be increasing. If this is the case, then it is possible that the numbers of juvenile turtles settling on the Caicos Banks to feed may also be increasing, but because TCI has not carried out any long-term research, we do not know the population trends in these turtles.

However, it is clear from TCOT surveys that juvenile green and hawksbill turtles occur in TCI’s waters in regionally important numbers, especially in Protected Areas. It is possible that, if these large foraging populations are increasing in TCI’s waters, then they may be able to sustain a limited and rigorously managed harvest.

The lack of baseline knowledge leads to one of the key recommendations made by the TCOT project. The Turks & Caicos Islands should carry out rigorous, long-term scientific research on its turtle populations if the country is serious about protecting its nesting turtles and managing its turtle fishery in a responsible and contemporary manner. Not only should there be systematic research into TCI’s turtles, but the legislation regulating the turtle harvest should also be amended in line with findings from recent research.

tagging-turtleFor example, current legislation prohibits the “take of any turtle on any beach or at any place above low water mark” and prohibits the collection of “laid” turtle eggs. But as soon as nesting females leave the beach and enter the surf they are fair game to the turtle fishermen. In fact, only turtles less than 20 pounds in weight are protected by the current Fisheries Protection Regulations 1998. But it is now widely accepted that the survival of populations of long-lived, slow-growing species such as turtles depends heavily on the survival of the large sub-adults and adults rather than the smaller, immature individuals.

Turtles are thought to mature at between 30 and 50 years of age, and it is believed that only 1 in 1,000 turtle eggs survives to become a mature, reproductively active adult. Therefore, these reproductive adults that have somehow, against the odds, survived the gamut of natural threats are particularly valuable to the population because they produce the eggs that hatch into the baby turtles that will one day maintain the population.

Furthermore, there is no closed season in TCI. The Fisheries Protection Regulations therefore provide very little protection to reproductive adults, which can be hunted at sea throughout the year, even during the nesting season. No wonder, then, that given the present legislation, the historical exploitation of nesting females and their eggs, and the extent of today’s harvest, TCI’s nesting populations appear to have significantly declined in the last few decades.

The message from the TCOT project is clear. If TCI is to seriously consider the future of its turtle populations, then the legislation and fishing practices should be radically changed to protect the sub-adult and adult turtles. Research into the country’s foraging aggregations, and the fishery that targets them must be enhanced so that we can begin to understand how best to manage this natural resource. If TCI acts now, then future generations of Turks & Caicos Islanders will be able to enjoy seeing turtles swimming in the sea, as well as be able to enjoy locally caught turtle stew.

But responsible management of the turtle fishery alone will not save TCI’s turtles. Throughout the Caribbean, there is growing pressure to develop turtle nesting beaches for tourism and TCI is no exception. Insensitive tourism development on nesting beaches will damage the beach structure, scare off nesting adults and result in fewer hatchlings making it to the sea.

TCOT did not fully record the extent of turtle nesting in TCI, and more research is needed, but thankfully, most of the nesting we did record occurred within the country’s excellent network of National Parks, Sanctuaries and Nature Reserves. The management of these Protected Areas is key to the survival of TCI’s nesting and foraging turtle populations. It is essential that the integrity of the Protected Area network is maintained in order to protect marine turtles, their habitat and the wealth of natural resources that lie within them. It is these resources that make the Turks & Caicos Islands “beautiful by nature” and lie at the heart of the country’s future prosperity.

The Islands need to manage their turtle fishery and protect their adult turtles now. Implementing protective measures without delay will assure the presence of these magnificent animals for this and future generations to come.

To find out more about the TCOT project and its recommendations regarding TCI’s turtles, go to www.seaturtle.org/mtrg/projects/tcot and download our final report. If you have further queries, e-mail the author at peter@mcsuk.org.



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