August 23, 2022
Last week, NEPA issued a press release informing us that the peak period for sea turtle nesting in Jamaica had ended, and the hatching season had begun. Sea turtle eggs hatch 60 – 80 days after they are laid, depending on their species and the weather.
This year’s weather has not been favourable. Hurricanes destroyed entire nesting colonies in Florida and the eastern Caribbean. In Jamaica, occasional heavy rains threatened to wash out nests that were not protected by shoreline vegetation. Washouts leave the eggs exposed to hot sun, predators and poachers. Frequent wetting and a lot of cloudy days should have kept the nests fairly cool this year, and that could mean more male hatchlings than females.
A lot of people want to know “Are sea turtles really good for anything? Why shouldn’t we just eat them or sell them? At least we get a meal and a little money.”
For one thing, it’s illegal. All Jamaican sea turtles are endangered and all of them are covered by the Wildlife Protection Act. Killing, harming, bothering or possessing a sea turtle, its meat, its shell or its eggs can get you a fine of $100,000 or a year in jail.
Second, live sea turtles have quite a lot of value, especially to our tourism industry. Divers and snorkelers really want big sea creatures. These people, especially the divers, spend a lot more money on their visits than the ones that just hang out at bars and beaches. We’ve killed off all the big fish, so turtles are among the few large marine animals we have left.
Also, turtles help to keep our reefs and seagrass beds healthy and productive. It’s these reefs and grass beds that build and protect our beaches and provide homes and breeding grounds for fish and other sea creatures.
Hawksbill turtles have narrow, pointed jaws that cross to form a sharp beak. This fits them well for scraping and digging their favourite food – sponges, tunicates and other creatures that form a crust on the reef. As they feed, the turtles leave behind the patches of clean, bare rock that new corals need to get established.
Loggerheads are strictly meat-eaters. The crunched shells of snails, conch, crabs and shrimp they leave behind are ground up by waves and tides to make more beach sand. Green turtles help with reef-cleaning. Their strong rounded jaws have sharp saw-tooth edges to help them tear off the algae that overgrow and smother coral. They also groom the seagrass beds and help them grow.
The first few hours are the most dangerous time of a young turtle’s life. NEPA advises that turtle hatchlings are “particularly vulnerable” and “special care must be taken not to disturb them”. In fact, less than one hatchling in 1,000 will survive the 20 years it takes to produce an adult turtle that can make babies of its own. People can improve the odds, and there is a growing and well-organized network of volunteers keeping watch over nesting beaches and making sure newly hatched babies get safely into the sea.
Keeping the beach clean is helpful – no garbage means a smooth run to the sea for newborn turtles. It also means fewer rats, and probably fewer sea birds, mongooses and dogs. We can also keep the sea clean. Picking up our trash, especially foam and plastic, will keep it out of the unwary jaws of grazing adult turtles. Making sure that sewage, storm runoff and industrial wastes are properly treated before they reach the sea will protect the turtles and other marine life from parasites, disease and poisoning.
Tourism operators were quick to grasp the idea of protecting turtles (perhaps as an apology for grabbing so many of the good beaches). Hotel and resort operators were particularly willing to cooperate when they found that turtles were a good off-season attraction. In fact, some visitors will pay handsomely to sit all night in the dark on a cold beach waiting for a nest to hatch. Staff members have been trained to locate and protect nests, and help newly hatched babies into the sea. Daily (and nightly) patrols help to discourage poachers, especially if they know that the effort to protect the turtles is supported by the community.
The strict rules protecting turtles, around the world and in Jamaica, have two purposes. First, save what’s left – stop killing adult turtles. Second, grow more – leave the nests alone, and protect hatching grounds as much as possible. Sea turtles survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. With help, they might survive us.