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Animal Experts Offer Advice on How to Protect Turtles

May 24, 2007 — Conservationists, environmentalists and biologists held a panel presentation and press conference in Christiansted Thursday where they asked Virgin Islanders to report finding a turtle in distress or a turtle nest.
The National Park Service brought together representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources' Division of Fish and Wildlife, the West Indies Marine Animal Research and Conservation Service and the Nature Conservancy. They talked about the risks to turtles, explaining why they felt it important to protect the animals while urging the public to lend a hand.
Park Ranger Zandy Hillis-Starr introduced the speakers and spoke herself about the work the U.S. Park Service does at Buck Island. From March to December on St. Croix, Buck Island and St. John, leatherback, green, hawksbill and loggerhead sea turtles all nest. All of these species are threatened, with the Hawksbill critically endangered.
“Right now our focus is the long-term return of females to lay eggs,” Hillis-Starr said. “The leatherback turtles don’t start laying eggs until they are 20 to 25 years old.”
This long period to maturity means even the most successful efforts to protect nest sites and baby turtles won’t have a long-term benefit to the turtle populations for decades.
“We still don’t know many things about these creatures,” Hillis-Starr said. “We don’t even know how long they live, although we know other large turtle species, like the Galapagos
tortoise, can live more than a century.”
The U.S. Park Service is doing basic research on the turtles nesting at Buck Island. Hillis-Starr said they believe the turtles may be returning to the beaches where they hatched, traveling thousands of miles — from the North Atlantic for some species, and from down by Central America for others — to lay their eggs on their natal beaches. These long journeys and the need to return to the same spot every year mean that preserving coastline is vital to the survival of the turtles.
While Buck Island is run by the National Park Service, Sandy Point is controlled by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We’re almost the same, but you can tell us apart by the color of our pants,” joked Claudia Lombard, a wildlife biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“Sandy Point is one of three refuges in the Virgin Islands and one of nine in the Caribbean,” Lombard said. “Established specifically to protect the leatherback turtles, Sandy Point is home to the best leatherback population in the U.S. and the Caribbean.”
Although Sandy Point is closed to the public to protect nests until September, Lombard encouraged residents to call up and arrange a night to watch the turtles hatch.
“The turtle-watching program allows groups to schedule a weekend evening at the beach to watch the turtles under close supervision,” Lombard said. To schedule a group turtle-watching, call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office at 340-690-9452.
Steve Garner, executive director of the West Indies Marine Animal Research and Conservation Service, spoke about turtle strandings and injuries.
“Since 2001 we have had, on average, 35 to 60 stranding calls per year,” he said. “Of those, 40 to 45 percent are due to boat strikes and another 40 to 45 percent are fishing related, such as turtles entangled in fishing lines. The rest, the remaining 15 percent or so, include a lot of dog attacks.”
WIMARCS runs the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rescue Network, which sends out volunteers to help stranded turtles. If you come across an injured or stranded turtle, Garner would like you to call the STAR Network at 1-877-3-TURTLE.
The St. Croix Environmental Association’s Uschi Toller manages SEA’s Southgate Coastal Reserve by Chenay Bay. The Southgate beach is an important nesting area, especially for green turtles, Toller said.
“Southgate is slightly different from Buck Island and Sandy Point because it is always open to the public,” Toller said. “One problem we’ve been having is people parking down on the beach. We have staked around the nests we know about and are looking for more permanent measures. With people on the beach, part of the problem has been trash on the beach. Turtles can choke on plastic bags and such, but also the trash attracts mongoose and rats, which will dig up the nests and eat the eggs.”
While the turtles face many dangers, efforts to protect them have borne fruit.
“The closures at Sandy Point and restrictions at Buck Island may inconvenience some, but they have worked very well,” Lombard said. “There has been a 700-percent increase in nesting over the past 25 years. Twenty-five years ago there were 16 or 17 nests a year on Sandy Point. Now they average 124 to 130 a year, with a record of 186 nests.”
For citizens who want to help, Lombard gave a short list of recommendations.
“I would say first, keep lights off at night near beaches,” Lombard said. “Second, I’d ask boaters to be respectful of the turtles and take care not to hit them. Third, don’t leave scraps of fishing line or any trash on the beaches. Lastly I’d say if you do find a turtle in distress, call the right people.”
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