Chiriquí Beach Project Leads to Increased Sea Turtle Protection and Research Opportunities

Issue 2, 2005 Articles:

* Chiriquí Beach Project Leads to Increased Sea Turtle Protection and Research Opportunities

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Chiriquí Beach Project Leads to Increased Sea Turtle Protection and Research Opportunities

The Chiriquí Beach Sea Turtle Research and Conservation Project, begun in 2003, is a multi-agency effort coordinated by the Caribbean Conservation Corporation and modeled after its successful program in Tortuguero, Costa Rica. This Panama-based program consists of intensive monitoring of hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) sea turtle nesting activity at Playa Chiriquí and neighboring nesting sites, protection of nesting females and their nests, community education and collaboration with other groups working in the region.

Chiriquí Beach was once described by Dr. Archie Carr as the most important nesting beach in the Caribbean for the “critically endangered” hawksbill turtle. It also remains one of the most important sites for leatherback nesting in the Atlantic, with as many as 7,170 to 14,005 nests being deposited yearly between the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border and Central Panama.

Conservation efforts at Chiriquí Beach have raised awareness about the importance of the region to the survival of hawksbills and leatherbacks, both regionally and globally. 2005 saw increased sea turtle protection efforts and the attachment of satellite transmitters to leatherbacks as part of an Atlantic-wide leatherback conservation initiative.

Spear-heading Efforts To Reduce Turtle Fishing – By Sebastian Tröeng & Cristina Ordoñez

Within the project area, the coastal zone offshore of Bocas del Toro Province is an important area for juvenile sea turtles but also attracts adult green turtles and hawksbills that mate near the coast before coming ashore to nest on beaches in Panama and nearby Costa Rica. Most green turtles in the region continue up the coast to nest at Tortuguero, Costa Rica, while many of the hawksbills emerge to lay their eggs in Panama at Chiriquí Beach, Escudo de Veraguas, the Zapatilla Cays and Long Beach on Bastimentos Island.

ANAM officers with seized turtle harpoons and live green turtles, which were released.

During the mating process, turtles float close to the surface and are oblivious to the threat posed by approaching fishermen. Although turtle fishing is prohibited in the region, each year many turtles fall prey to fishermen’s harpoons. Many green turtles traveling to their nesting beach in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, are being caught illegally in Panama. In addition, rare hawksbill turtles are also harpooned whenever possible. Hawksbills are also taken from nearby unprotected nesting beaches. In August 2005, a student of CCC Research Coordinator Cristina Ordoñez discovered a nesting hawksbill that had been recently killed by poachers. The turtle’s valuable shell had not yet been removed. The flippers showed marks from tags suggesting that the turtle may have nested on Chiriquí Beach or the Zapatilla Cays, where CCC and its collaborators conduct tagging work. Clearly, this illegal harvest is impacting conservation efforts at the Tortuguero and Chiriquí Beach projects.

Cristina and “Chencho” Castillo, a former turtle fisherman who is now a valued member of the turtle research program coordinated by Drs. Anne and Peter Meylan at Zapatilla Cays, grew increasingly impatient with the many illegal fishermen and the apparent lack of enforcement by Panamanian officials. They repeatedly informed ANAM, the Panamanian National Environmental Authority about the problem. Finally, in mid-July, ANAM staff began patrolling coastal waters to enforce turtle protection laws, thanks in part to money provided by CCC for boat fuel.

During its first patrol, ANAM confiscated 28 turtle harpoons and liberated four live green turtles that had been caught illegally. Two of the turtles were brought back to Bocas del Toro, where CCC staff tagged them before their release. The enforcement patrol had an immediate effect on turtle fishing. During the week prior to the patrol, Chencho had counted up to ten boats with turtle hunters each day passing by the Zapatilla Cays. After the patrol, less than one boat per day was seen.

During a follow-up action in August, ANAM confiscated another 20 harpoons and freed a male green turtle. ANAM is to be commended for undertaking these patrols.

As a result of increased awareness of the illegal turtle harvest and stepped-up enforcement activities of ANAM, the Chiriquí Beach Project is already resulting in unexpected conservaion benefits for endangered sea turtles. It is our hope that this long-term program will continue to reduce illegal turtle fishing in the region.

Ancient Mariners Phone Home – By David Godfrey & Renée Zenaida

Leatherback satellite tagging crew, Sebastian Tröeng (CCC), Cristina Ordoñez (CCC), Dan Evans (CCC) and Carlos Drews (WWF) pose with “Cristina.”

In June 2005, CCC and partner scientists with the World Wildlife Fund fitted the first-ever satellite transmitters to critically endangered leatherback sea turtles nesting at Chiriquí Beach on Panama’s Caribbean coast. Lightweight telemetry harnesses were attached to five leatherbacks after they had come ashore and successfully nested. With nests dug, eggs laid, and sporting high-tech satellite transmitters, Shelldon, Idun, Cristina, Fermina and Romana headed back to the open water, each equipped to “phone home.”

The telemetry devices, which transmit signals to orbiting satellites each time a turtle comes to the surface of the ocean to breathe, allow scientists to collect data on the migratory movements and diving behavior of sea turtles.

When these ancient mariners “phone home” it’s not just scientists who are picking up the call. As part of CCC’s internet-based Sea Turtle Migration-Tracking Education Program, anyone with Internet access can follow the travels of the Chiriquí Beach leatherbacks. And by participating in CCC’s Adopt-a-Turtle program, enthusiasts can show their support by adopting one of the many sea turtles being tracked right now.

“We got lucky,” says Dan Evans, Field Programs Coordinator for CCC, “We had lots of turtles nesting the first two nights, then nothing. But the last two nights, we had multiple turtles come ashore, which allowed us to deploy the final two transmitters in one night.”

Single map with all current tracks. Click to enlarge, opens in new window.

For at least 65 million years leatherback turtles have cruised the oceans diving to depths in excess of 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) and traveling as far as 4,800 miles (7,724 kilometers) from their nesting beaches to foraging waters. Roughly the size of a small car and weighing up to 1,200 pounds, much about the life history of the leatherback remains a mystery.

Threatened on multiple fronts, including the taking of nesting females and eggs, accidental capture and killing of turtles in commercial fishing operations, and potentially fatal ingestion of floating debris resembling the adult leatherback’s main food—jellyfish, the future of this ancient mariner is seriously in question.

“These animals have been around for millions of years, yet it is very possible that we could see them disappear in our lifetime,” says David Godfrey, Executive Director of CCC. “Urgent priorities include the reduction of leatherback by-catch in fisheries, stopping the killing of nesting females, and promoting international cooperation in leatherback conservation.”

Some sea turtle scientists have warned of the possible extinction of leatherbacks in the Pacific during the next decade. In keeping with recommendations developed at its recent Atlantic Leatherback Strategy Retreat, which brought together many of the world’s leading leatherback experts, CCC has partnered with groups like the World Wildlife Fund to extend the scope of its Caribbean Leatherback Tracking and Conservation Program. This research will aid in the development of international guidelines to protect foraging areas and limit losses in commercial fisheries.

For more information and to view current migration maps, visit