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Nature Conservancy Magazine: Winter 2008

Night Life

Tracking a Turtle Comeback on Caribbean Beaches

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Learn more about turtle conservation.

By Rebecca Clarren

Sea turtles are in trouble. Worldwide, six of the seven species of sea turtles — all but the Australian flatback — are listed as endangered, and some populations are critically close to extinction.

The Caribbean is no exception. Across the region, many reefs (key foraging grounds for hawksbill turtles) have lost up to 80 percent of their coral in the past 50 years as a result of overfishing, the effects of climate change, and contamination by storm-water runoff containing pesticides, sewage and sediment.

There’s trouble on the beaches, too. A recently released atlas of more than 1,300 sea-turtle nesting beaches, funded by The Nature Conservancy and compiled by the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), shows that almost every one is affected by coastal development, invasive species or erosion. And although it’s illegal to steal turtle eggs or kill turtles in 70 percent of Caribbean countries, poaching remains common.

Yet amid this sea of trouble comes a splash of hope. According to an ongoing Conservancy study, the number of green sea turtles nesting at its Jack and Isaac Bays Preserve and adjacent beaches on St. Croix has nearly doubled in the past six years. In fact, for each of the six species nesting in the Caribbean — green, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley and olive Ridley — researchers are finding examples of dramatically rising populations, says Karen Eckert, executive director of WIDECAST. “Not every population is rising — some are still declining dramatically, and many are gone,” she says, “but some of our largest populations are on the upswing.”

Experts say the rising numbers are the result of 30 years of efforts to protect habitat, curb poaching and reduce accidental entanglements in fishing gear. But to truly recover Caribbean sea turtles, not simply stop them at the gates of extinction, is going to take a new level of coordination between countries, says Phil Kramer, director of the Conservancy’s Caribbean program.

“The same species might nest in Costa Rica and then go feed in Nicaragua and then go up into Florida,” says Kramer. “We need to look at whole-ocean planning. Our future marine biodiversity is at stake here.”

Toward that end, the Conservancy in the spring of 2008 pledged $20 million to support the Caribbean Challenge, an unprecedented commitment by Caribbean governments to protect at least 20 percent of their marine and coastal habitats by 2020. Already, five countries have signed on.

Meanwhile, dedicated researchers and volunteers keep their nightly vigils, tagging turtles and marking nests, hoping to keep these ancient animals coming back.

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