By Evelyn Wight
Mentioned in the Hawaiian creation chant, the kumulipo, and once a delicacy in traditional Hawaiian diets, sea turtles are as much a part of our local culture as coconuts or ti leaves. A holdover from the time of the dinosaurs (75 to 150 million years ago), these ancient reptiles fascinate and delight nearly everyone who encounters them.
However, because of habitat loss, invasive species and overharvesting, turtles are a protected species. And thanks to this protection, their populations have grown, especially populations of the green sea turtle, or honu, which is commonly seen in the main Hawaiian Islands eating limu (algae) in shallow coastal waters and resting on our shorelines.
In other parts of the Pacific, where limited seasonal take of some turtle species is allowed, it is very rare to see a honu anywhere—they avoid humans as predators. But here in Hawai‘i, they are no longer afraid of people and sometimes have to be protected from enthusiastic onlookers at popular beaches.
Nevertheless, honu populations are a long way from being recovered. NOAA estimates there are approximately 2,000 nesting pairs in Hawaiʻi, with a minimum of 5,000 nesting pairs needed before they are no longer endangered.
Green sea turtles nest in Papahānaumokuākea (the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) and migrate hundreds of miles to breed. The much rarer hawksbill sea turtle, or honu‘ea, nests predominately on Hawai‘i Island. Honu‘ea is a not culinary delicacy—the meat is poisonous to humans. Their small population size is instead due to overharvesting for their beautiful shells, habitat loss and invasive species.
Honu‘ea are prevalent along the southwest coast of Hawai‘i Island, including at the Conservancy’s 24-acre Kamehame Beach Preserve in Kaʻū. Kamehame is one of the most important hawksbill nesting sites in the U.S., as well as a refuge for honu and monk seals. The Hawai‘i Island Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Project helps to maintain the site, records data, monitors the nests day and night, and protects the eggs and hatching turtles from invasive species like rats, ants, cats and mongoose.
On average, a honu‘ea will lay four to six nests per season. Approximately two months later, 80 percent of the eggs will hatch and the little hatchlings will make the life or death run to the sea. This season, approximately 1,000 hatchlings made it to the ocean safely. About 1% will survive to adulthood.
June 03, 2013