Turtles in Danger on Courland Beach
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Turtles in Danger on Courland Beach

The biggest challenge to sea turtle conservation remains the lack of adequately enforced governmental policy with regards to our management of our beaches and seas.

The Save Our Sea Turtles (SOS) Tobago group patrolled beaches for the sea turtle nesting season this year, and experienced first hand many of the frustrations resulting from poor enforcement of existing laws and inadequate laws which allow environmental destruction to continue.

Let us consider for a moment the overall issue of coastal management by looking at the situation on Courland Bay. Here we have a beautiful, long stretch of beach where diligent conservation efforts have resulted in a small increase in its number of nesting leatherbacks this season.

Unfortunately, the leatherback population there is still critically low and the overall conditions on the beach continue to pose a threat to the nests and hatchlings.

Vehicles on the beach are of particular concern at this time of year as they can easily crush any nests under their path. Although the turtle ordinance prohibits activity that directly jeopardizes nesting sites, one particular pick-up drove halfway down the beach, dumped some garbage near the Plymouth river mouth and then drove back the way it came, unhindered and apparently unnoticed. This type of illegal action is commonplace.

Another popular, and again illegal, reason for driving vehicles on to the beach, is sand mining. This is very common at the Black Rock river mouth as well as at the foot of Fort Bennett.

Sand mining results not just in the loss of nests but also in the loss of nesting area for subsequent years. The coastal erosion towards Fort Bennett proves that once sand is artificially removed, it does not come back. In this case, it is not just the turtles that are suffering but also the people who are now struggling to keep their houses from falling into the sea.

One of the biggest problems turtle conservationists have always faced on Courland Bay is the lighting from the Turtle Beach Hotel. Artificial lighting shining on to a beach is very distracting and disorienting for turtles, every season a number of hatchlings head up on to the lawn and off to the hotel mistaking its lights for the natural luminescence of the sea. Thankfully, management here is very co-operative and allows the hotel lights to be dimmed for the season and in the absence of any stricter legal policy that is all that one can really expect.

Turtle-friendly lighting systems have been developed. In some parts of the world where there is turtle nesting activity, these systems are enthusiastically adopted not just for businesses but for street lighting as well.

Implementation of such a system in Tobago would encourage more nesting activity directly in front of the hotel. Undoubtedly this would be extremely well received by the number of enthusiastic tourists that come to stay at the Turtle Beach hoping to witness the amazing spectacle from which their hotel derived its name.

Although a great deal of global research goes into the development of new, environmentally friendly systems, individuals in small countries, such as our own, are seldom aware of the availability and benefits of such alternatives. Without the encouragement of supportive governmental policies, there is really very little incentive to investigate let alone invest in such systems.

Although, the leatherback nesting season is virtually at its end, hatchlings have been reported on nesting beaches throughout Tobago. If we are extremely lucky, at least one in every hundred will survive to adulthood, returning to the Caribbean in twenty-five years to mate and lay.

This dismal survival rate is due in part to the increasing number of hazards that these creatures face at sea. Ocean pollution and commercial fishing continue to inadvertently claim the lives of countless leatherbacks as they travel throughout the Atlantic to feed. Laws and policies need to be urgently put in place to manage activities in near-shore as well as open seas.

Sea turtle populations also continue to suffer from illegal and over-hunting. Almost every harvest on the island continues to be well supplied with illegally caught turtle meat in the middle of nesting season. Current laws protecting nesting females on beaches are ignored and the slaughter continues.

Sustainable management of our coastal areas is key to preserving our beaches and our quality of life; this is not just a question of animal conservation. Courland Bay is a prime example of where existing policies are not working. One could say that it is difficult in such a residential and commercial area to properly implement policies that appear to be restrictive to human activity. However, environmentally friendly procedures need not compete with human freedom, the challenge is finding alternatives that benefit everyone in the long run. This turtle season provided many examples of where these kinds of compromises could be made.

This makes it even more important for us to take an active role in protecting our coastal areas and consequently our turtles. Adoption and application of more stringent environmental laws would not only preserve our local beaches for the turtles but for us as well.
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