Endangered Sea Turtles of Tobago
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Endangered Sea Turtles of Tobago

Source: Karen L. Eckert, Ph.D. 1998.
Environment Tobago Newsletter (Issue 2.2) .

Turtles are among the most ancient of all living reptiles. Their history reaches back more than 200 million years -- before the Dinosaurs! Today we share our planet with many species of turtle, including seven species which spend their entire lives in the ocean. These turtles are known as "sea turtles", and all are classified as Endangered or Threatened with extinction. This is certainly true of sea turtles in the Caribbean Sea, where older fishermen remember the days when there were more (and larger) turtles in the sea than there are now. Sadly, some of the largest sea turtle assemblages the world has ever known (for example, the green turtle nesting colonies of the Cayman Islands) have been extinct in the Caribbean for more than a century. For this reason it is important that we know something about our remaining sea turtles so that we can adequately protect them for our children and their children to see and enjoy.

The most common species in Tobago (at least on the nesting beaches) is the Leatherback turtle, known to scientists as Dermochelys coriacea -- the "skin turtle." At the right time of year, generally between April and July, you may encounter a leatherback turtle. These giant "soft-shelled" turtles can weigh as much as 2000 pounds! Leatherbacks must travel to the Caribbean to nest because they reside in cooler latitudes of the United States, Canada and the eastern Atlantic Ocean. These areas are far too cold to provide adequate nesting conditions! Thus, Caribbean islands, including Trinidad and Tobago, are very important to the survival of these ancient creatures. Sadly, many of the leatherbacks that come to Tobago laden with eggs are killed when they come ashore. When an adult female is killed, thousands of eggs (which would have been laid in future years) are also lost.

It is because we have killed so many of the adults that sea turtles of all species are Endangered throughout the Caribbean. Each female must lay many thousands of eggs in order for her species to survive. Did you know that only a few hatchlings in 1000 will survive to maturity and lay eggs of their own? Sea turtles are 20-35 years old, depending on the species, they are old enough to breed. Many are killed, especially by man, before they reach this age. Sometimes we do not kill them directly, but still they perish from our activities. For example, turtles breath air and can drown when they become entangled in fishing nets. Also, turtles are very sensitive to light. When the nesting beach is well lit by hotels and other developments, the baby turtles are attracted by these artificial lights and crawl inland. These hatchlings never find the sea and they often die in the morning sun. Finally, turtles can mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and die when their stomachs become packed with plastic.

Until recently, nothing was known about the offshore behaviour of leatherback turtles in Trinidad and Tobago. Accurate information about inter-nesting movements and post-nesting migrations was acquired for the first time in 1995 when satellite transmitters were affixed to three leatherbacks nesting at Matura Beach. The urgent need for this type of research was realised during the development of a national "Sea Turtle Recovery Action Plan", when it became apparent that large numbers of egg-bearing females were caught in fishing nets off the north and east coasts of Trinidad. The biotelemetry research was undertaken jointly by the Wildlife Section-Forestry Division (Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Marine Resources) and Dr. Scott Eckert (Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, California), with financial support from Amoco-Trinidad.

These three turtles stayed within 50 km of the coast, ranging from Blanchissuese to Mayaro, during the nesting season. All three left local waters in June (after the egg-laying cycle was complete), travelling in a north-easterly direction. One transmitter expired about 850 km east of Antigua. The other two transmitters provided data for more than a year -- one turtle swam directly to west Africa, while the other one charted a course for the frigid north Atlantic, later veering southeast to arrive in African waters (see Map). The record of this magnificent post-nesting migration is the first ever recorded anywhere in the world, and clearly shows how vital it is that nations throughout the Atlantic basin co-operate to protect these "ancient mariners." Tobago has a global responsibility to protect this shared resource, because Tobago provides the nursery. This trust is gravely violated when leatherbacks are wantonly slaughtered during their vulnerable nesting stage -- a slaughter which is reducing the species' numbers throughout the wider Atlantic.

There is speculation that the arrival of the leatherbacks, as well as their movement and distribution around our islands, corresponds with a seasonal influx of jellyfish. Scientists, including UWI's Dr. Peter Bacon, have published their observations of leatherbacks eating jellyfishes (such as Physalia and Stomolophus) in coastal waters. Some feeding may occur during the reproductive season, but the extent to which this occurs has not been studied. Based on studies of offshore diving by adult females nesting on St. Croix, Dr. Scott Eckert proposed that the observed inter-nesting dive behaviour reflected night-time feeding on vertically migrating zooplankton, chiefly siphonophore and salp colonies. Stomach contents of animals killed in other parts of the world indicate that leatherbacks do indeed prefer to eat jellyfish and related animals.

What other species of sea turtle, besides the leatherback, are found in Tobago?

Some scientific papers have noted that nesting by hawksbill turtles occurs in Tobago, but few details are available. On the other hand, the extent of potential foraging habitat is large in Tobago (since hawksbills depend on a diet of sponges and other reef-related organisms) and the island once supported a rich hawksbill fauna. Today local fishermen contend that hawksbills are fewer and smaller than in recent memory. They are frequently caught during the closed season, mostly by nets set parallel to the shoreline in reef habitat. The unregulated harvest has taken its toll. At Arnos Vale, for example, hawksbills were "common" less than ten years ago; today they are absent. Tortoiseshell jewellery, made from hawksbill shell, continues to be illegally sold in Tobago.

Green turtle nesting in Trinidad and Tobago is considered to be occasional and less common than that of the hawksbill. This species is reported to nest at various locations along the north and east coasts of Trinidad; in addition, there are records from Paria, Moruga and the islands off the north-western coast, as well as unconfirmed accounts by villagers of nesting at Salybia and Sans Souci. Here in Tobago, there are reports of nesting from the early 1970's at Batteaux Bay and Grafton Estate but, according to Erol Caesar (Fisheries Officer), no adults have been reported in "recent memory." Juveniles of varying sizes forage in the waters of Tobago throughout the year, primarily in areas of sea grass. Juveniles are netted in and out of season, most are caught along the Atlantic coast, especially toward the south-western sector.

The loggerhead is the rarest of the marine turtles found in Trinidad and Tobago. The first documented nesting record is that of a female tagged at Las Cuevas on the north coast of Trinidad on 11 July 1970. Some investigators have suggested that the south coast may also support loggerhead nesting, but adequate surveys have not been done. The most recent information on nesting was recorded on film at Grande Riviere on 16 July 1989! The north coast of Trinidad, as well as Chachachacare Island, appear to support foraging. Interviews with fishermen confirm that the species is still occasionally encountered off Trinidad's north coast; however, there is no recent evidence, either anecdotal or documented, of nesting or foraging by loggerhead turtles in Tobago. Is this species already lost to our children?

Many Caribbean countries are taking steps to protect their sea turtles. Tobago, along with nations and territories throughout the Caribbean, is participating in an important regional project called WIDECAST (Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network). With the help of WIDECAST, a "Sea Turtle Recovery Action Plan" has been drafted for Trinidad and Tobago. If we follow the recommendations put forth in this Plan (which will be published by the United Nations Environment Programme in 1998), our sea turtles will have a good chance of survival. Each of us is important in this effort. We can choose not to eat turtle meat, not to buy tortoiseshell jewellery and other shell products, not to disturb sea turtle eggs incubating on the beach, not to discard tangled fishing line, plastic, and other waste on the beach or in the sea, and to report those who would harm our remaining sea turtles.

Sea turtles depend on a clean environment. Sea grasses are vital to green turtles and healthy coral reefs are vital to the survival of hawksbills. Sea grass and coral can die from pollution, dredging, anchoring or trampling. If these important ecosystems suffer . . . so will the sea turtles, subsistence and commercial fisheries, and marine and coastal tourism. There is no point to protecting sea turtles if they have nowhere to live, and nothing to eat. Green and hawksbill turtles were once much more common in our nearshore waters than they are today. Unregulated harvest, especially of larger juveniles (targeted because they provide more meat), and a degraded environment, has meant that fewer and fewer turtles are living long enough to lay eggs -- and thus there are fewer and fewer turtles entering each new generation.

What can you do to protect sea turtles in Tobago?
  • Don't purchase sea turtle products at home or abroad. Purchasing these products encourages the harvest of sea turtles. Nearly all countries of the world, including Trinidad and Tobago, prohibit the import and export of endangered species products.
  • Don't discard plastics and other refuse at sea.
  • Watch for sea turtles at sea, they can be struck and killed by boat propellers and wind surfers.
  • Check fishing nets frequently so that sea turtles are not ensnared and drowned.
  • Don't harass sea turtles at sea or on land. Don't disturb turtles in feeding areas, shine lights on nesting turtles, or ride turtles.
  • Encourage regulations requiring that lights not shine on nesting beaches. Use structural shields or vegetation hedges. Low pressure sodium vapour lights emit wavelengths less attractive to sea turtles and their use should be encouraged.
  • Don't drive vehicles or ride horses on potential nesting beaches. These activities crush incubating eggs, and tire ruts trap hatchlings as they crawl to the sea.
  • Don't leave lounge chairs, sailboats, and other obstructions on nesting beaches at night.
  • Don't litter sandy beaches. Discarded cans and bottles are unsightly and can cause injury to nesting turtles.
  • Remember, it is illegal not only to kill, but to pursue or molest any sea turtle (that is, any egg, hatchling or adult) on land at any time. It is also illegal to capture at sea or offer for sale any sea turtle (or turtle product) during the closed season under the Fisheries Act: 1 March - 30 September.

Tobago's Illegal Leatherback Hunt

Source: Karen L. Eckert, Ph.D., Wendy Herron, 1998.
Environment Tobago Newsletter (Issue 2.2).

In contrast to the at-sea fishery for hard shelled turtles (for which there is an open season), all purposeful killing of leatherbacks occurs on land. The clandestine and brutal harvest consists solely of reproductively active females. Beach patrols by Club Crusoe (a programme of the IMA Extension Services and Resource Programme) in 1982 first revealed high levels of poaching. By 7 June 1984 (peak season), seven carcasses had already been reported from Stone Haven (Grafton) Beach and five from Turtle Beach, according to a document drafted by Nadra Nathai-Gyan for the Western Atlantic Turtle Symposium, convened in Costa Rica in July of that year. Unfortunately, protection efforts were intermittent during the 1980's, and it was not until 1990 that community patrols were informally organised once again.

In 1990, volunteer patrollers documented five carcasses at King Peter's Back Bay. In 1995, patrols were undertaken by Forestry personnel who reported 55 nesting crawls and four carcasses (clearly an underestimate, since community patrollers found seven carcasses at King Peter's Back Bay alone). Since not every crawl results in the successful laying of eggs (thus 55 crawls represents an unknown but fewer number of nests), and each individual female averages 6-7 nests per year, those 55 crawls might be attributed to a mere 8-9 individual turtles. With this in mind, mortality (minimum: 7 turtles) approached 100% in 1995 at the hands of man.

The situation did not improve in 1996, despite repeated requests by activists that local police and Forestry officials intervene. By mid-June 1997, a staggering 16 leatherback carcasses had been identified on various nesting beaches in Tobago: seven at Mt. Irvine Back Bay (Rocky Pt.), four near Castara (Celery Bay), three at Turtle Beach, and two at Stone Haven (W. Herron, pers. comm.). At Mt. Irvine Back Bay, a relatively small and isolated nesting ground, 13 nests were probed and possibly poached. Much of the meat obtained during 1997 later appeared at community celebrations typical of the season, such as "Fishermen Fetes" which traditionally emphasise 'wild meat'. Turtle meat and "Turtle 'n Dumplings" were served at various fetes during the months of June and July.

It is not unusual for several men to participate in the killing of a helpless leatherback during her egg-laying. A witness to the slaughter at Plymouth (Turtle Beach), where one turtle was killed on 28 May 1997 and two more on the 29th of that month, reported that "a group of 15-17 men were involved."

The killing is largely confined to relatively remote beaches, but there are regular exceptions (e.g., a carcass at Speyside in 1995). Eggs are not favoured (they are sometimes collected by poachers, but the most common predators are dogs), the female is the main target. The adult turtle is flipped and her throat slit. Recently there has been a degree of maiming ("slice off a fin and run"), as poachers fear being confronted by community activists. The meat sells for TT$ 7-10/lb, depending on availability.

It doesn't take a scientist to realise that the combined assault of harvesting both egg-bearing females and their nests has brought the Tobago nesting population to the verge of extinction. In view of the extensive slaughter of leatherbacks over the years, it is interesting that some local legends discourage the eating of leatherback meat. In a 1971 article, Dr. Peter Bacon quoted a local [Trinidad] fisherman who explained that the "caldon is really the doctor for all the other turtles. When a turtle gets sick the leatherback takes all its disease out of him. So that is why caldon is covered with spots and his meat is not good to eat." Indeed, most would agree that the meat of the leatherback is not very good to eat; it is greasy and gamy or "fresh" and has to be specially prepared. But this has not stopped the slaughter.

The slaughter of leatherbacks in Tobago represents an immediate management crisis. Tourists are increasingly vocalising dismay and disgust over the killing, and local government officials are hearing about it. Effective action, however, is much more likely to be taken at the grassroots level.

There are ongoing patrols at Turtle Beach and Grafton, utilising security guards from each hotel and also led by turtle conservationists Harris McMillan and Wendy Herron. Forestry personnel Selwyn Davis, Jackie Johnson and Arlene Blade attempt to cover more northerly beaches, but are woefully understaffed for such a mammoth project. Mt. Irvine Back Beach is periodically patrolled, but its isolation makes it dangerous for patrollers and a haven for poachers.

Education and awareness initiatives have been undertaken by Selwyn Davis, who lectures at local schools about turtles, as well as Tobago's fragile ecology. Turtle Beach and Grafton Hotel's security are well-informed and will be bolstered in their efforts by Mr. McMillan and Ms. Herron, who will initiate weekly seminars for hotel staff and tourists concerning conservation, beach lighting during laying season and proper behaviour when observing nesting females.

Reports of violations should go to the THA Forestry Division (660-2079), and Ms. Herron (639-9669 or 639-8981). Ms. Herron has set up a programme to co-ordinate and verify reports.

Turtle Law in Tobago

Source: Karen L. Eckert, Ph.D., Wendy Herron, 1998.
Environment Tobago Newsletter (Issue 2.2).

The Conservation of Wild Life Act (Act 16 of 1958, amended by 14 of 1963), Chapter 67:01 of the Laws of Trinidad and Tobago, provides "protected animals" (defined as any animal not specified or mentioned in the Second or Third Schedules to the Act), including sea turtles, their nests and their young, with unambiguous protection against wounding and killing, as well as acts of harassment. Unfortunately, since the Fisheries Act provides an open season at sea (see below), this protection only applies to the nesting beach. The penalty for hunting sea turtles (or any protected animal) without a licence is one thousand dollars or imprisonment for three months. "Hunt" is defined to include not only wounding, killing and capturing, but also pursuing or molesting by any method or "attempting to do any of such things", and includes any act immediately directed at the killing or capture of any animal. The Act protects not only adult turtles, but all life stages (including the eggs, carcass, meat, nest or young)
on land.

In contrast, sea turtles are not completely protected at sea. In 1975, the "Protection of Turtle and Turtle Eggs Regulations" were promulgated under Section 4 of the Fisheries Act of 1916 (Chapter 67:51 of the Laws of Trinidad and Tobago). The Regulations mandate that "2. No person shall -- (a) kill, harpoon, catch or otherwise take possession of any female turtle which is in the sea within any reef or within one thousand yards from the high water mark of the foreshore where there is no reef; (b) take or remove or cause to be removed any turtle eggs after they have been laid and buried by a female turtle or after they have been buried by any person; (c) purchase, sell, offer or expose for sale or cause to be sold or offered or exposed for sale or be in possession of any turtle eggs. 3. No person shall, between 1st March and 30th September, kill, harpoon, catch or otherwise take possession of or purchase, sell, offer or expose for sale or cause to be sold or offered or exposed for sale any turtle or turtle meat." Offenders are liable on summary conviction to a fine of two thousand dollars and to imprisonment for six months.

In practice, the rules of the open season are impossible to enforce. The provision that females not be ensnared by nets set within 1000 yards from the high water mark or in any reef requires vigorous at-sea enforcement efforts to ensure compliance, or to obtain a conviction. Furthermore, while the sex of an adult male can often be confirmed by the presence of a long, prehensile tail (extending 8 inches or more beyond the animal's shell), a fishermen cannot assume a turtle is a female simply because the tail is short and nearly concealed beneath the shell. Such a turtle may be a sexually immature male. Most green and hawksbill turtles are harvested as juveniles and are taken from reef or other nearshore hard bottom habitat where, according to law, only males can legally be landed. When we remember that in order to determine the sex of a juvenile sea turtle, the turtle must be killed (to examine the reproductive organs), we can see that the law is fundamentally both illogical and useless. In any event, it is not sensible to confine the harvest to males which are also important to the reproductive success of populations.

There is a well-documented history of correspondence among relevant Government offices articulating concern over inadequacies in the legislative framework that protects sea turtles in Trinidad and Tobago, and urging that the "Protection of Turtle and Turtle Eggs Regulations" under the Fisheries Act be amended to ban the capture, possession and sale of the whole or any part thereof of a sea turtle. Based on documented evidence of the continued slaughter of sea turtles, both legal and illegal throughout the country, it is a matter of urgency that the Regulations be so amended. Government officials at all levels, community and conservation activists, and the fishermen themselves agree that confusion surrounding the legal status of sea turtles is unacceptable and that clarity should be an immediate priority.
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