Turtles are majestic creatures that draw attention and wonder all around the world, especially when an adult of the reptile specie is spotted.
Sadly, not many individuals are aware of the challenges these creatures face in their development and efforts to complete a life cycle.
Most turtles can live from 10 to 80 years, but large land tortoises and sea turtles can live beyond 150 years. Of the seven species of sea turtles in the world, Jamaica’s waters are graced by the Loggerhead, Leatherback, Green Sea, and the critically endangered Hawksbill. The latter is the most frequently spotted in Jamaica.
A Hawksbill sea turtle (eretmochelys imbricata) spotted in Portland. Hawksbills nest on Jamaican beaches and are a critically endangered specie of turtles.
“This is for a number of reasons. Different turtles have different demands in terms of the type of habitat on the beaches that they use, and a lot of our beaches – the topography and types of beaches – are conducive for Hawksbill turtles to nest. The other is that, typically, people eat Green Sea turtles more than Hawksbill, although it is highly illegal, as all sea turtles are protected,” Environmental Officer, Ecosystems Management Branch at the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), Damany Calder, shared with JIS News.
Many of the Green Sea turtles that have been caught for consumption are nesting females, which then negatively impacted the specie population. Only female turtles return to land, and it is generally to lay a clutch or batch of eggs. Calder shared that, thanks to conservation efforts, things are looking up for the Green Sea turtle population.
“We do get juvenile Green Sea turtles in our waters. They may be one to two feet in length shooting around the seagrass. So, people in Portland now are seeing more of them around Blue Lagoon, Monkey Island area. Now you are almost guaranteed to see turtles there, and that is through conservation efforts via NEPA and, since the establishment of the East Portland Fish Sanctuary managed by the Alligator Head Foundation,” the Environmental Officer said.
Clutch sizes may vary based on the size of the turtles and range between 100-250 eggs. Calder explained that the number of eggs laid does not immediately translate to an equivalent increase in the turtle population.
“Various things can happen such as fungus, ants, bacteria, roots from trees can intrude and damage the nest and eggs, and some may not hatch properly,” Calder said.
Those that hatch still face many dangers, he continued.
“Persons often see a nest hatch, and it is 250 turtles crawling out or multiple nests hatching 500 to 700 turtles going out to sea. The survival rate of turtles to sexual maturity tends to be one in 1,000… Of those that hatch and exit the nest, crabs will grab them, birds will grab them, rats, mongooses and sometimes dogs and cats can pose a problem. Once in the sea, fish and birds are eating them, and this is just within the first hours of life,” explained NEPA’s Environmental Officer.
Those that continue to grow and become too big for fish to prey on then have to face another predator – sharks.
The point of hatching through to sexual maturity is a lengthy period for turtles, an average of 20-25 years.
Once mature, turtles can then procreate in hopes of continuing the turtle population. Mature turtles have a season that rotates every two to three years, and sometimes they lay up to seven clutches within a season.
Additionally, female sea turtles are known to nest on the shores they were hatched even if they had not been there for years.
A juvenile Green Sea turtle (chelonia mydas) rescued and released on Pelican Cay, Portland Bight, St Catherine.
The Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), of which NEPA and other environmental bodies in the Caribbean are a part, collaborates in the collection of turtle information through turtle tags.
“We at NEPA, through turtle tagging, get a better understanding of where turtles are nesting and where they forage. We liaise with and monitor our NGO partner groups. We also provide them with tags and resource material, and they will monitor the beaches for hatching and feed us the information that we compile. We also have an index beach in Palisadoes which we monitor between September and early December because that is when we found that particular beach to have the most nesting activity,” disclosed Calder.
The National Environment and Planning Agency also has existing memoranda of understanding with the Bluefields Bay Fisherman Friendly Society and the Alligator Pond Citizen’s Association for the monitoring of turtles and their nesting and foraging locations. Fish sanctuaries along the coast also have their turtle protection programmes.
Other entities such as the Treasure Beach Turtle Group, Negril Area Environmental Protection Trust (NEPT) and hotels like the Half Moon and Sandals work with NEPA in their own turtle programmes.
Since both female and hatchling turtles rely on light reflection from water to guide them between sea and land, NEPA has put several guidelines in place to minimise distractions that could lead to turtles moving inland when they should be returning to the sea. These include conditions in planning and development permits for hotels. It is recommended that beach chairs and solid waste are removed from the beach daily to prevent turtles getting caught in them.
With World Turtle Day being observed on May 23 to help people celebrate and protect turtles and tortoises, Calder recommends being mindful of waste disposal along the shores to prevent hatchlings from being trapped and larger turtles from eating plastic waste.
He also recommends planting seaside vegetation, which both attracts Hawksbill turtles to nest and helps minimise beach erosion.