A Caribbean perspective on World Sea Turtle Day

Leatherback turtle image via Canva Pro.

World Sea Turtles Day, marked annually on June 16, raises awareness for the protection and conservation of the species by educating people about their importance to marine ecosystems.

As a keystone species, turtles directly influence their environment in tangible ways that include everything from controlling the numbers of their prey to ensuring the health of seagrass beds and coral reefs. The pressing need for their preservation has also helped to boost the livelihoods of regional coastal communities, some of which have organised themselves into turtle-watching and protection groups. If a keystone species dies out or is removed from a habitat, the balance of that entire ecosystem can be thrown off, causing a negative ripple effect on dependent marine life.

The Caribbean welcomes various types of sea turtles each year during turtle nesting season, although some species can be found in Caribbean waters year-round. Five of the most common to the shores of Trinidad and Tobago — leatherbacks, hawksbills, loggerheads, olive ridleys and green turtles — run the gamut from being vulnerable to critically endangered. Yet, poaching continues to pose a serious threat, as does the increasing fragility of marine habitats.

This is of grave concern to Caribbean environmentalists, who are speaking out against high levels of plastic pollution plaguing the region, as well as the looming possibility of deep-sea mining.

On Facebook, Michelle Cazabon-Mannette, an environmental biologist who is a technical advisor at Save Our Sea Turtles Tobago and a director at SpeSeas, noted:

[The hawksbill] species is targeted for its shell to make jewellery etc. In the past, shell from [Trinidad and Toabgo] was exported to Japan as part of this trade! Now such trade is prohibited under CITES and we don't commonly see these products locally anymore.

CITES, an acronym for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is an international agreement aimed at ensuring that trading in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species.

Via its social media pages, the SpeSeas organisation also wrote about threats to marine turtles:

[E]ntanglement in fishing gear [is] likely the greatest single threat to sea turtles. This is a global issue and also hits home here in T&T where leatherback bycatch in drift nets is a significant issue.

Posting an image of a dead leatherback entangled in a drift net off Trinidad's north coast during the 2023 nesting season, it added:

More work needs to be done to quantify the mortality from this impact here and in the region. Could this be a major contributor to the decline observed in our Northwest Atlantic population? More research is also needed to find ways to mitigate this impact – promising gear adaptations include the use of lights on nets. We need to work with fishermen to address this issue.

A couple of weeks earlier, in time for World Turtle Day on May 23, Tradition Sailing Anguilla posted a beautiful image of a sea turtle swimming:

The types of sea turtles we have in Anguilla are mostly leatherback (vulnerable), hawksbill (critically endangered) and green (endangered).

Ways to help protect and preserve sea turtles is by reducing marine debris, meaning don't litter – keep the beaches clean and mind anything that can blow into the ocean. Reducing plastic use is an enormous way to help not only sea turtles but the environment. Plastic straws and plastic bags are directly harmful to sea turtles, as are “direct takes” of both sea turtles and their eggs, by humans. Encourage businesses and homes, especially those along a beach to turn off beachfront lights at night and eliminate the use of plastic straws/cups and don't use the beach to dispose of cigarette butts. Regarding sea turtle nesting, you can also fill in any holes you see on the beach.

Artificial light messes with turtles’ inner navigation system, dissuading female turtles from nesting and disorienting hatchlings as they try to make their way out to sea. Cigarette butts, which are made from small pieces of plastic, can accumulate in turtles’ stomachs and comprise digestion, eventually causing them to starve and die. Leaving holes on beaches — whether through building sandcastles, anchoring umbrellas or similar activities — can cause turtles (especially hatchlings) and other wildlife to become trapped.

The Barbados Sea Turtle Project recently completed training a cadre of volunteers to help with beach patrol and turtle monitoring during the nesting season:

Our teams will be on the beaches of Barbados day and night collecting data and ensuring the safety of our critically endangered mums and hatchlings.

The season is off to a roaring start – lots of turtle activity and already a turtle in the road in Speightstown. Thanks to Joshua who saw her and called, she was returned to the beach before the worst could happen. There was also a disoriented nesting female who became confused by lights after nesting. Thankfully, we were called and there to ensure she made it safely to the sea.
Our turtles face increasing threats each year and will need everyone's help and support this season.

Stories like these are encouraging, but turtles also face challenges from climate change, including warmer ocean temperatures and sea-level rise. These ancient mariners have navigated the world's oceans for more than a hundred million years, however, and one Trinidadian naturalist, Ian Lambie, took the opportunity to remind people of just how amazing these creatures are. He shared the story of Ruby and Isabel, two leatherbacks that had been fitted with transmitters in Nova Scotia, Canada, in July 2019 and were located 10 months later along Trinidad's north coast:

[Ruby] was found on the beach at Las Cuevas Bay in May 2020 having travelled 12,892 kilometres, [and] Isabel [who] was tagged in July 2019 in Halifax, [was] recovered on the beach at Grand Rivière Bay [in] May 2020, having travelled 12,252 kilometres.

Whether travelling long distances, heaving themselves onshore and digging nests to lay their eggs, or scrambling back to sea to begin the journey all over again, turtles are fascinating creatures — beautiful, critical to the marine environment, and without doubt, worth saving.

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