A new journey in turtle conservation
By Emosi Lasaqa
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It’s always hard not to feel emotional every time a turtle is released back into the ocean as their relative safety of the ocean, is often fraught with dangers.
According to research, only about 25 per cent are likely to survive their first year in the ocean.
The feeling was the same when three hawksbill turtle was released at Castaway Island Resort on Friday 29 June-marking the launch of the Mamanuca Environment Society (MES) Turtle Project.
For a while, the typically quiet beach was a hive of activity as guests and visitors gathered around say goodbye before the three critically endangered species were set down quite away from the water’s edge.
I later learnt that this is to give them chance to acclimatise.
Since birth, they were kept in the pond and fed raw fish by the staff and for a moment, it seemed they never really wanted to be free.
In fact, the biggest of the three turned as if to crawl back to the beach, only to be stopped by the many faces that were watching her.
But with a gentle push and pat on the back, she pulled herself to the water edge and was soon followed by the other two.
They stopped for a moment as if to say good-bye, and then swam off, disappearing almost immediately.
Many stayed back as long as they could, wishing the three Hawksbills luck in their ‘new’ world.
It was, perhaps, the highlight of the program. Their journey, like the MES’s Turtle Project, was just beginning.
Started in 2006 with the Institute of Marine Research (IMR-USP) through an Australian Grant to do research on sea turtles in the Mamanucas, the mission was further boosted through the UNDP Global Environment Facility (GEF ) Small Grant programme of USD$50,000 in 2008.
Over the years, the society toiled hard to promote, educate and assist villagers, communities and resorts in the Mamanuca region on the importance of saving turtles – who were previously a prized delicacy and wanted for their unique shells.
MES Chairman and Castaway Island Resort managing director, Geoffrey Shaw said the accomplishment was a milestone as the findings can be adopted by any community in the region or around the world in turtle conservation.
It came in the form of three action plans.
The first is the ‘Sea Turtle Community-based Management Plan which has been endorsed as a policy that should be adopted by communities living by the sea.
With an 18-page manual written in the local language, the management plan outlines the set of rules that each village can implement in terms of turtle harvesting for traditional gatherings, beach conditions for turtle nesting and village integrated groups that could be formed to overlook each community's conservation efforts.
The second is ‘The Best Practice Guideline’ that addresses the major issues the turtle population faces in Fiji, and highlights the best ways for local communities to conserve the species.
And the third action plan is the production of a ‘Biological Report’, a best-practices approach to sea turtle conservation efforts.
All marine turtle species face serious threats to their survival. Marine turtles are recognised internationally as species of conservation concern as in Fiji, with a survival rate of only 1 in every 1000 hatchling.
After hatching from nests made on the beach, the individual hatchlings clamber over each other to reach the surface of their nest and rush toward the sea using the horizon’s light as a cue.
At this point they encounter one of the many challenges to their survival, natural predators like crabs, ants and birds. Another encounter is the confusion from artificial lights emanating from roads or buildings which they mistake for the horizon and the water’s edge.
Hatchlings that make it to the surf line keep crawling until an undertow sweeps them out into deeper water where they then set a course for the open ocean for a remarkable non-stop 96 hour swim. Once in the open ocean young marine turtles then depend on ocean currents to freely drift and feed until they’re bigger (about the a size of dinner plates), when they tend to settle at inshore feeding grounds.
Marine turtles grow slowly and take between 30 to 45 years to reach sexual maturity. They live for years in the one place before they are ready to make the long breeding migration of up to 3000 kilometres from the feeding grounds to nesting beaches.
When breeding, nesting females return to the same area thought to be in the region of their birth. It’s believed that as hatchlings, sea turtles become imprinted with the earth’s magnetic field and possibly the smell of the water adjacent to the nesting beach, which allows them to successfully complete their migration.
Between nesting efforts, female turtles gather adjacent to the nesting beaches. They return to the same beach to lay consecutive clutches. A female green turtle usually lays six clutches of eggs at two weekly intervals, with each clutch containing about 100 white, spherical, “ping-pong” ball sized eggs.
After laying its eggs, the turtle then fills the egg chamber with sand using the hind flippers and then fills the body pit using all four flippers before crawling back to sea. And then it is another wait before the next generation of hatchlings run down to the beachfront for a whole new cycle of life.
Emosi Lasaqa is a Media Officer with the Mamanuca Environment Society