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A Step Forward for Caribbean Sea Turtles

by Richard Garrigues

The keystone of sea turtle activity on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica is Tortuguero, where the giant turtles have been coming ashore between the months of July and September to lay their eggs for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years. The predominant species using this nesting site is the Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas). In fact, Tortuguero is visited by more nesting Green Sea Turtles than any other beach in the Western Hemisphere.

However, the annual abundance of turtles nearly led to their obliteration when turtle soup became fashionable about a century ago. Although they are elegantly evolved for powerful swimming, sea turtles are ill-adapted for terrestrial locomotion. They are only able to drag themselves along the sand with great effort, thus making them easy prey for villagers who once harvested great numbers of the animals and their eggs each nesting season and sold them to sea-faring traders. The yearly arrival of the sea turtles is still a major source of income for Tortuguero residents, but now the money comes from nature tourism rather than the sale of turtles or their eggs.

Although the nesting beach has been officially protected since the creation of Tortuguero National Park in 1970, true protection of the site can only be achieved through community cooperation — which it seems tourism is helping to accomplish.

But no matter how successful the conservation efforts at Tortuguero may be, they will be for naught if the turtles are slaughtered or lose vital habitat in other places where they spend much of their lives.

Perhaps the most significant of these areas is off the Miskito Coast of northeastern Nicaragua, where extensive banks of marine vegetation, known appropriately as "turtle grass," attract numerous Green Sea Turtles during the year. In addition to this feeding site, the turtles are known to travel south into Panamanian waters and may also wander widely throughout the Caribbean.

Much of what is known about the movements of these turtles is the result of the turtle tagging program begun at Tortuguero nearly 40 years ago. Conceived by the late Dr. Archie Carr, the project used a small metal tag placed on the inner-trailing end of each front flipper of the females that came ashore to lay eggs. As well as giving each turtle a unique identifying number, the tags bore a legend offering a $5 reward for their return with information about where the turtle had been found. The tagging program has yielded much information about the frequency with which females come ashore to nest and about where they disburse to in the post-breeding season. One remarkable bit of data is that practically every time an individual turtle returns to nest at Tortuguero, even if it has been three or four years since her previous nesting visit, she comes up at the same spot (give or take several hundred feet) along the eight-kilometer (five-mile) stretch of beach used by the green turtles—and after having traveled hundreds of kilometers to get there!

Two serious limitations exist with the tagging project however: males are not tagged since they never come ashore and it gives very little idea as to the turtles' behavior when away from the nesting area. Enter the age of satellite telemetry. Working out of Bocas del Toro, Panama—some 240 kilometers (150 miles) southeast of Tortuguero—Drs. Peter and Anne Meylan began putting small transmitter units on the backs of a few male Green Sea Turtles in July 1995. Each time the animal breaks the surface to breathe, the tiny antenna emerges and beams a signal to a satellite which then sends the information on to be analyzed by computer. The result is that researchers can now "see" their migratory paths on computer-generated maps.

Although the data is still insufficient at this stage to have a complete picture about the regional movements of Green Sea Turtles, the near future should shed light on many unknown aspects of the turtles' lives. And because the sea turtles are a highly mobile population dependant on a variety of resources for feeding and nesting in the western Caribbean, the signing of the tri-national conservation agreement is expected to be an important step in the conservation of this species.

The fate of sea turtles remains greatly threatened by the activities of humans—both directly through local harvesting for food or by being caught in shrimp trawler nets, as well as indirectly through pollution or habitat destruction.

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