Tortuguero Update: 2007 Leatherback Season

Issue 2, 2007 Articles:

* Sea Turtles and North Carolina Inshore Fisheries
* Tortuguero Update

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Tortuguero Update

By Dr. Emma Harrison, Scientific Director


CCC Coordinates Tortuguero Turtle Spotter Program

In 2004, a pilot project aimed at reducing the impact of tourism visitation on green turtle nesting was implemented on the public beach in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, host to one of the largest green turtle nesting rookeries in the world. Seven local turtle spotters were hired with funds from local hotel and cabaña owners. Each night the turtle spotters patrolled the beach searching for nesting females. When they encountered a turtle they radioed her location back to the guides, who then walked their tourists to her, using a path located behind the beach. The spotters replaced the old tour system, in which tourists would walk the beach with their guide searching for turtles, thus reducing the impacts of the tourists on the turtles coming ashore to nest.

In 2005, the Turtle Spotter Program was extended to the National Park section of the beach. Thirteen turtle spotters were hired. This allowed more visitors to participate in turtle tours while maintaining a low level of impact. However, due to inadequate funding, the project had to be discontinued earlier than planned.

CCC, committed to sustainable ecotourism in the region, began work with Área de Conservación Tortuguero and the group ProParques to provide suitable funding for the Turtle Spotter Project starting with the 2007 nesting season. As part of the project, CCC will oversee the program.

Funding will be provided through the purchase of stickers and educational brochures, which will cost $4. The stickers and brochures will be purchased by the local hotels and cabaña operators. The stickers will be used to identify hotel guests that are on the guided turtle tours.

Tortuga Lodge, one of the major “eco-hotels” in the area, has already committed to purchasing the brochures and stickers for its guests participating in its turtle tours. Many other hotels are expected to join in by the start of the 2007 green turtle nesting season.
By Roxana Silman, Costa Rica Director


Leatherback Nesting Increased During 2007 Season

We are almost at the end of another leatherback nesting season in Tortuguero, Costa Rica. In mid-May Caribbean Conservation Corporation researchers began to wonder if the season hadn’t come to a rather abrupt halt, as no turtles were reported nesting close to the station for 10 consecutive nights. This is rather unusual, as nesting typically continues until at least the end of June or even into July. In the last week of May, however, nesting picked up. The lull, fortunately, did not mark the end of the season.

CCC’s new Field Coordinators, Dagnia Nolasco from Peru and Xavier Debade from France, who are no strangers to Tortuguero, having been Research Assistants (RAs) during the 2002 Green Turtle Program, were joined by this year’s research team in early March. As always, this year’s group of RAs is a diverse mix, with people from Spain, Mexico, Costa Rica, Australia and the USA volunteering their time and energy for three months to collect data on the leatherbacks nesting in Tortuguero. Hundreds of miles have been walked along the 22 miles of nesting beach, in all kinds of weather conditions. CCC really appreciates all their hard work!

Every three days, a census of the entire 22-mile beach from Tortuguero to Parismina is conducted to count all the turtle tracks. These data are used to estimate the total number of nests laid throughout the season. CCC also monitors and calculates how many turtle nests have been illegally poached. As of May 20, a total of 639 leatherback nests had been recorded (in 2006 only 481 nests were counted for the entire season).

Unfortunately, illegal poaching of nests and turtles is still a problem. The good news is that the level of poaching this year is considerably lower than that observed in previous years. Only about 8% of the leatherback nests have been poached this year, compared to nearly 19% in 2006.

During the night patrols, turtles are encountered when they come ashore to nest. After they have laid their eggs, they are tagged with metal flipper tags and measured. To date for the 2007 season, 103 leatherbacks have been encountered. Of these, 32 were new females, 49 were turtles that had been tagged in a previous year or on other nesting beaches, and 22 were individuals seen more than once this season.

Comparing the nesting and poaching figures to last year, it appears that the 2007 leatherback nesting season was better than the 2006 season. It is encouraging to see lots of untagged females, suggesting that they are possible “first time” nesters that are joining the nesting population. Researchers have also seen 19 early nesting green turtles and one hawksbill.

With the leatherback season coming to a close, CCC researchers are now eagerly awaiting the start of the hatching season. So far this year, CCC researchers have only seen evidence of two nests hatching. We will keep our fingers crossed for more signs of hatchlings crawling out of the sand and racing to the sea. CCC is hopeful this will be a successful year for the Tortuguero leatherbacks!