Green Pages

A Promising Prognosis

GP-Turtles-Amdeep-logger---Tackling TCI’s turtle fishery.
By Peter Richardson, Biodiversity Programme Manager, Marine Conservation Society (MCS)

Humans have hunted turtles in the Turks & Caicos Islands for centuries. Yet turtles still thrive here, in good numbers too. With their extensive, pristine coral reefs and vast swathes of seagrass beds, lagoons and tidal creeks, the low lying Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) provide valuable feeding grounds for thousands of green and hawksbill turtles. The Islands’ human settlers have exploited this rich turtle bounty since their arrival in about 700 AD.

Archaeological digs at ancient Taino Indian settlements throughout the Islands have revealed middens stacked full of turtle bones. After Europeans discovered the Islands in the 16th century, the Tainos’ subsistence hunting would likely have been replaced by commercial turtle harvests, which provided meat and shell for regular export right up until the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Nowadays, the economic value of TCI’s turtle harvest is relatively unimportant. Most of the Islands’ fishermen depend on the more lucrative conch and lobster fisheries, which supply the export markets in the USA.

But despite an apparent decline in the demand for turtle meat in recent decades, many folk in TCI still enjoy it. A few fishermen regularly harvest turtles intentionally to satisfy local demand from restaurants and private customers, but most turtles taken in TCI are caught opportunistically, by fishermen fishing for other species. If these fishers encounter turtles and can catch them easily, often they will be taken home for personal consumption. To date TCI’s turtle fishery has been largely ignored, perhaps because few, if any fishers depend on what is perceived as a largely incidental harvest. Nevertheless, in 2004 a provisional assessment carried out by the Marine Conservation Society (UK) and the University of Exeter with the Department of Environment & Coastal Resources (DECR) estimated that the Islands’ annual harvest of green and hawksbill turtles was likely to involve hundreds, and possibly thousands of turtles per year. TCI’s turtle fishery could be landing one of largest legal turtle harvests in the Caribbean.

Time for change

Over the years, the turtle harvest regulations contained in subsequent drafts of TCI’s fishery legislation have not kept pace with our growing understanding of marine turtle biology and are now in need of change. For example, the current Fishery Protection Ordinance states any turtle that weighs over 20 pounds, or measures 20 inches “from the neck scales to the tail piece,” can be caught at any time of the year. Female turtles and their eggs are protected above the high water line, but as soon as those same females return to the sea they are fair game to the fishers. Unlike the conch and lobster fisheries, there is no closed season for TCI’s turtle fishery and therefore there is no real protection for the reproductively valuable adult turtles in TCI’s waters.

Our previous research suggested that most of the turtles present in TCI’s waters are juveniles or sub-adults, and genetic analysis of the relatively small numbers of green and hawksbill turtles sampled during those studies indicate that most originated from nearby, or larger nesting populations in the region. Many of these larger nesting populations in the Caribbean, such as Costa Rica’s green turtle rookery at Tortuguero and the hawksbill rookeries in Puerto Rico, are showing strong signs of recovery despite centuries of harvest in the TCI. These encouraging results are largely due to concerted conservation efforts at the nesting beaches far away from the TCI, where nesting females and their eggs are protected from illegal poaching.

The TCI itself also has a nesting population of hawksbills, as well as the occasional nesting green and loggerhead turtle. But our research found that the historical and ongoing harvest of adult turtles in TCI waters has almost certainly led to these nesting populations being wiped out from the inhabited islands. We found that fishers tend to target larger sub-adult and adult turtles, perhaps not surprisingly as these animals yield more meat, and there lies the key problem with today’s turtle fishery in TCI. With no change in the management of the fishery, it is likely that TCI fishers will whittle away the country’s remnant population of reproducing adult turtles until it disappears, perhaps forever. This has happened elsewhere in the Caribbean in recent history, but it doesn’t have to happen in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

The way forward

The TCI has a sovereign right to use its natural resources for domestic consumption, but it is clear that something has to be done to reverse the apparent decline in TCI’s nesting turtles while balancing the needs of the community. An outright ban on turtle fishing would be impractical, unenforceable and inequitable, and is therefore not an option. Instead, we believe a solution can be found through an inclusive, participatory approach that involves turtle fishers. This approach is essential to inform much-needed changes to the Fisheries Protection Ordinance, and establish a more sustainable, yet stakeholder-led turtle fishery management strategy. In 2007, DECR Director Wesley Clerveaux recognised the need for action and invited MCS and the University of Exeter to return to TCI to follow up on our research recommendations.

GP-Turtles-Tom-tommy-amdeepAt about the same time, long-term Marine Conservation Society members Anne and Simon Notley were looking to get involved with a meaningful conservation project after having sold their very successful business. A chance encounter with the MCS Fundraising Manager aroused their interest in our tentative ideas for a follow-up project in TCI. “Having sold our company a few years ago, we wanted to get involved in a conservation project, but neither of us had a research background,” says Anne. “My training was in law and Simon’s was in yacht and boatyard management. We have been members of MCS for 15 years, so it was natural to talk to the Marine Conservation Society about which projects we could help. We had always wanted to have an excuse to visit warmer climes during the winter, so when the Turks & Caicos Islands project idea was mentioned it wasn’t very difficult to make a decision. We are both keen divers and sailors, so turtle conservation was a no-brainer for us!”

After 18 months of planning and deliberation, MCS, Anne and Simon, the University of Exeter’s Marine Turtle Research Group and the DECR committed to making the project become reality. The School for Field Studies in South Caicos, which has continued collecting data on turtles around South Caicos since 2005 when they assisted with our previous research, also pledged its support. So, with the Notley’s financial backing in place, and local and international project partners engaged, the Turks & Caicos Islands Turtle Project was born. The project will thoroughly assess the status of the Islands’ turtle foraging and nesting populations, understand the turtle nesting seasons in TCI, and generate a comprehensive analysis of the TCI’s turtle harvest, including biological, economic and social evaluations. After two years of fieldwork, which will include extensive consultation with turtle fishers, the project will have developed a comprehensive draft turtle fishery management plan and detailed recommendations for appropriate amendments to the existing legislation.

New faces

As the project gained momentum last year, the University of Exeter recruited PhD student Tom Stringell to coordinate the biological data collection and analysis, while MCS recruited social scientist Amdeep Sanghera as the project field officer. Amdeep handles the logistics of day-to-day biological data collection on the ground, but given the participatory nature of the project’s aims, social science is a major aspect of his work. He has extensive experience of assessing wildlife use, especially in Africa where he investigated several situations including turtle hunting in Ghana. He was therefore attracted to the proposition of using his skills in the Caribbean. “My background has involved working with resource users to investigate ways to better manage the very resources they rely upon,” says Amdeep, “so the TCI project really attracted me, especially the project duration and the participatory nature of the work. In two years, you can really get to the core of the issues and get a strong grasp of what people feel and think. With strong emphasis on fisher participation, the project should allow stakeholders to have a voice in matters that are close to them, and hopefully facilitate changes that are, as much as possible, reflective of their views.” Amdeep will build a thorough understanding of the socio-economic factors that need to be considered in shaping the future of turtle use in TCI.

Life in the “Big South”

While Tom Stringell makes four, month-long research trips each year, Amdeep is based full time in South Caicos, the traditional home of fishing in the TCI. Wesley Clerveaux arranged desk space for Amdeep at the DECR’s office there, and gave him a room in “The Lab”, the renovated DECR accommodation a stone’s throw away from the beautiful azure sea on South Caicos’ rocky southern coast. Wesley also recruited local fisherman Tommy Philips as Amdeep’s project assistant. Tommy has made sure that Amdeep had all the right introductions in the fisher communities when he first arrived in November 2008. Already Amdeep has made significant inroads into the South Caicos community, making good friends, gaining fisher confidence and understanding more about the dynamics of the harvest and what it means to the fishers. Tommy is an excellent boatman who knows the local reefs and banks like the back of his hand and has been catching turtles all his life. While he teaches them the tricks of his trade, Amdeep and Tom have trained Tommy in the biometric measuring, turtle tagging and tissue-sampling methods needed to assess the status of TCI’s turtle stock. Together they work on the South Caicos dock, sampling harvested turtles as they are landed and chatting to the fishermen about their day.

GP-turtles-HB-treat-2By Amdeep’s own admission, this work, with its almost daily exposure to the realities of an active turtle fishery, has taken some getting used to after a spell of living in urban Birmingham. But The Lab is set away from the main town, meaning that while Amdeep is integrated within the tight South Caicos community, he also manages to find that all-important personal space. “After a hard day’s work at the dock, there’s nothing better than going back to The Lab and enjoying a long stare into the open ocean,“ he says. When Tom Stringell is on island for his research trips, Tommy takes him with Amdeep out in the DECR boat to the project’s research sites to survey nesting beaches, or catch, sample, tag and release turtles on the reefs and seagrass beds.

Despite his sociological leanings, Amdeep admits that these sampling trips are some of the most enjoyable days on the job. “I particularly enjoy the catch, tag and release sampling trips. It’s pretty exciting work and very rewarding, because very little research has been directed towards turtles here in TCI. I caught, tagged and released a loggerhead turtle in February. It was the first loggerhead turtle ever to be tagged in TCI and a very exhilarating experience for me. In fact every turtle we tag, sample and release during this project has the potential to bridge the gaps in our knowledge about these amazing creatures.”

The biological research also benefits from the School for Field Studies’ generous support. Research associate Marta Calosso takes Amdeep, Tom and Tommy to sites close to the School to catch, tag and release turtles. In addition, the School’s students and staff go out and collect these data as part of their program.

Anne and Simon Notley’s practical involvement is also integral to the scope of the research throughout the Islands. As well as funding the project, they bought Salt Dog, a 50-foot Lagoon catamaran yacht. Anne and Simon regularly visit the Islands, when they use Salt Dog to assist with nesting beach surveying and turtle sampling at the more remote cays and reefs in the archipelago, and to indulge Simon’s life-long passion for sailing!  He explains, “I don’t need an excuse to get out on the water. I love it, always have. But the most enjoyable thing about our involvement with this project is the sense of real purpose, having hands-on input and constantly learning about the turtles and the Islands. Anne and I feel unbelievably privileged to part of this ground-breaking project.”

GP-turtles-turtle-treatThe project is still in its infancy and there is a long way to go. But with two years of full-time presence in the fishing communities, Amdeep and the project team will be well placed to develop legislative change and a new, participatory and sustainable turtle fishery management strategy for Wesley and the DECR to take forward. Amdeep does not pre-empt the results, but is optimistic about the project outcome. “At the moment I imagine that the turtle harvest will eventually be managed by standard fishery measures such as size limits and closed seasons, measures that the fishers already know in the other, more economically important fisheries,” says Amdeep. “But the main challenge for me is whether fishers will be prepared to adhere to such measures. Turtles have been a traditional resource for many Turks & Caicos Islanders and the introduction of new, top-down management measures may cause some alarm, which in turn could lead to non-compliance. This project acknowledges the dangers of that approach and that is why we are working at the fishers’ level. It’s rare to find projects that put so much emphasis on the meaningful participation of all stakeholders. I’m confident that after extensive local consultation, any changes in the management of the fishery will not only be a product of the research, but will also embody the desires and opinions of the people most dependent on the turtles. And if we really get it right, the fishers will be actively engaged in the management of the fishery too.”

In order to complement the data gathered by the project team, the DECR is requesting public cooperation and requesting that any sightings of turtles, turtle nests or turtles landed for consumption be reported to the TCI Turtle Project at (649) 243-4895 or on e-mail to amdeep.sanghera@mcsuk.org. All information will be treated in confidence and will be of great value in ensuring that the project has national coverage and provides a full assessment of the Turks & Caicos Islands’ turtle populations.

To find out more, go to www.mcsuk.org, where we will also be featuring regular updates from the project.



1 Comment

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armoo otto
Aug 6, 2011 14:41

its good you are continuing the research work we did at Amansuri ,ACID,as an interpreter at that time for you ,it makes me proud.BROFLEEEE, ABIBILEEEEE.
I now at Accra,
get in touch,tel+233-0547 9191 54.
Kawula dance at Baku,Ghana.

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