Sea turtle conservation in the era of COVID-19 and beyond

Issue 1, 2020

Sea turtle conservation in the era of COVID-19 and beyond

By David Godfrey, Executive Director


On behalf of the entire staff and Board of Directors of Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC), we hope all of our members and supporters, as well as your families and communities, are staying safe as we navigate our way through the Covid-19 pandemic and adapt to the many ways it continues to impact our world. We will persevere!
For its part, STC is pressing ahead with as many of our programs as possible, given the current social distancing recommendations and restrictions on both domestic and international travel. Every STC staff member remains employed and dedicated to our individual tasks and programs. Those of us based at STC’s home office in Florida are mostly working from home, with just occasional visits to the office to take care of essential tasks. Any of us can be reached by email, and we check voice mails left at the office daily. Remote access technology and Zoom video conferencing are keeping the staff well-connected and on-task despite working from home. In fact, the technology is working so well in many professional sectors that it may lead to more flexible, remote-work policies that help save energy and lower our carbon footprint—one of the few good things that may come from the workplace upheaval caused by coronavirus.

Of course, much of STC’s work takes place on beaches and in nearshore waters around Florida, the Caribbean and Central America. To the extent possible, many of these programs are underway now, as leatherback turtles have already started to nest at Tortuguero, Costa Rica, and at various project sites in Panama. Both leatherbacks and loggerhead turtles also are nesting in Florida, particularly in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge—site of the Barrier Island Center (BIC) any many of STC’s educational outreach programs. Unfortunately, all activity at the BIC is on hold until the Center opens back up, hopefully in time for our popular summer camps and guided sea turtle walks.

Both Costa Rica and Panama have, for now, closed their borders to non-residents. Fortunately, STC’s programs in these countries are carried out primarily by full-time staff and local community employees. Though we currently are unable to make use of visiting student Research Assistants or participants of our Eco-Volunteer Programs, we have sufficient staff on hand to carry out our main sea turtle research and nest protection protocols.

It’s still early in the nesting season, but indications are that it will be a banner year for leatherbacks at our Central American beaches. As this newsletter is going to print, STC had already documented 50 leatherback and three green turtle nests in Tortuguero; and 1,000 leatherback and 30 hawksbill nests at various project sites in Panama.

STC’s in-water research programs, which are conducted in Bermuda and on Florida’s Gulf Coast, are still expected to be carried out as usual during the summer months. Some in-water turtle surveys originally planned for the spring in Florida were postponed, but all indications are that this exciting new research program will resume by June. The Bermuda Turtle Project, conducted in partnership with the Bermuda Zoological Society, always takes place in August, and those plans are still in place.

You may have noticed a great deal of media attention focused on the way wildlife around the world is responding to changes in human behavior. Photos of large cats, bears and even penguins walking down city streets have been circulating broadly, and news reports about cleaner air and water (even in the canals of Venice) have been everywhere. Sea turtles have been generating a lot of media interest as well. STC Executive Director David Godfrey has been interviewed by several national news outlets to provide his insight into the ways sea turtles may benefit from the pandemic.

While recent changes related to the pandemic have not suddenly resulted in more adult, nesting turtles, it is likely that some of the most significant sources of sea turtle mortality in Florida and the southeastern US, including boat strikes (the #1 cause associated with dead and injured turtles that wash ashore), disturbance of nesting turtles by people on the beach (a serious and growing problem in Florida) and disorientation of hatchlings by beachfront lights, are being lessened as a result of massive changes in human behavior. No solid data exists yet, but when the nesting season is over, the “benefits” are likely to be seen in reduced numbers related to boat strikes, false crawl rates and disorientations caused by lighting.

While there may be benefits to sea turtles on US nesting beaches, the opposite may be true in Central America, the Caribbean and developing countries around the world, where the main threats to sea turtles are different. In these countries, poaching of turtles and eggs is likely to increase because of reduced law enforcement on nesting beaches—combined with higher levels of desperation for food among local human populations. As a result, STC’s staff members in these countries are working overtime to monitor nests, safely deter poachers, and encourage additional law enforcement in areas where poaching flares up.

Many people are asking about the fate of this year’s Tour de Turtles Program, which depends on our ability to deploy satellite transmitters on sea turtles at various nesting sites so they can be tracked for research and tracked online as part of this popular education program. STC is happy to report that the Tour de Turtles will be conducted this year, with a planned kick-off date of August 1. As of now, STC plans to tag and release turtles in Nevis, Costa Rica, Panama and Florida.

Some of those sites may need to be taken off the list if international travel doesn’t open up this summer. However, at a minimum, STC researchers will be able to travel to beaches within Florida to attach transmitters—even if that activity must occur at night and without the normal public turtle releases.

While we hope and expect that health guidelines will allow for public events by late July, we are planning for every possibility. The Tour de Turtles is likely to be even more popular this year, as more people around the globe looking for fun, educational things to do online that bring them closer to nature.

One thing heavy on the minds of many people is whether there are lessons for the future to be learned from this calamitous pandemic. STC’s messaging on this topic will focus on the way changes in human behavior can have real, positive impacts on the planet. We’ve been hearing from climate scientists for years that major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are needed urgently in order to reduce the impacts of global warming. The kinds of changes required have been hard to envision—and even harder to believe that your own actions can make a difference. Now we know that swift and far-reaching change is possible—and will work.

Some of the behavioral changes happening now are exactly the kinds of things STC has been trying to get people to do voluntarily for 60 years in order to reduce harmful impacts to sea turtles and their habitats—avoid disturbing turtles while they are nesting; slow down boats where sea turtles occur; reduce the flow of plastic into our oceans; and keep the beaches dark for sea turtles.
The lesson STC wants people to remember is that the fate of sea turtles, wildlife and the planet itself is directly linked to our individual and collective behavior. We just need to make the best choices for their, and our, future.