Protecting Jamaica's sea turtles

Observer Reporter

Monday, December 24, 2001    

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THE first national sea turtle survey has revealed that all species of turtle in Jamaica have suffered serious decline and that only the hawksbill still nests in any numbers.

The survey, commissioned by the Sea Turtle Recovery Network (STRN) in collaboration with the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), has just been completed and is being prepared for distribution. This is documented as a draft Sea Turtle Recovery Action Plan aimed at developing a national effort to ensure the recovery of sea turtle stocks and summarizes the status and distribution of sea turtles in Jamaica.

With regard to the Action Plan, the document explains that its development has been achieved through the compilation of existing data on the status and distribution of sea turtles in Jamaica, the assessment of the role played by the sea turtles in Jamaica's culture and economy, and the identification of factors threatening turtles and their habitat. This forms the basis for specific management recommendations for the population monitoring, habitat protection, community involvement, public awareness and legislation and law enforcement.

According to the survey in the Western Atlantic region, the hawksbill sea turtle is considered to be "critically endangered", while four other species are "endangered", and a sixth, the loggerhead, is classified as "vulnerable" by the World Conservation Union.

The cause of their decline was more than 400 years of intense harvesting throughout the region for meat, shell, oil and skins combined with serious degradation of nesting and foraging habits.

In Jamaica, four species of sea turtles are known to have nested in recent decades. The hawksbill, green, loggerhead and leatherback. In addition, the hawksbills and green turtles of varying sizes are present offshore.

Based on data from historical literature, local populations of sea turtles have declined drastically since the fifteenth century, the survey noted.

The Country Environmental Profile (GOJ, 1987), stated that habitat destruction is the biggest contributor to the continuing decline of Jamaica's unique plant and animal communities.

It added that, "this is true of marine turtles, where all qualitative evidence suggests that nesting and foraging areas are under increasing stress from development, disturbance and pollution. Many beaches, which one supported sea turtle nesting, have been heavily developed and that successful nesting is no longer possible.

In the 1980's, more than 15 of 26 Jamaican beaches included in a survey showed signs of oil pollution.

Explaining further, the survey said sea turtles depend largely on sea grass meadows and live coral reef habitats for food and shelter. There has been no nationwide assessment of the health and status of sea grass, but studies in the Kingston Harbour illustrate that they are negatively affected by pollution.

The findings revealed that the most important factors contributing to the destruction and degradation of nesting beaches include; proliferation of coastal developments, physical barriers to sea turtle nesting and hatching, increasing human presence on the beaches and cays, increasing population of exotic predators, proliferation of rats on the offshore cays, pollution from oil and the compaction of beach sand by pedestrians.

The STRN is a non-profit organisation, founded in 1991 to enforce regulations and educate the various interest groups of the importance of protecting turtles and their habitat. Through collaboration with governmental and non-governmental organisations, individuals, private sector and other STRN's (Caribbean), its activities have led to a great increase in awareness of the importance of sea turtle watches and local firms have provided support.

The organisation was founded by Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), which comprises an international Recovery Team of sea turtle experts, local co-ordinators and an extensive network of interested individuals.

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