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Talking Turtle Conservation with the Department of Environment

by Maia Muttoo May 20, 2019

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This Thursday, 23 May, the world will observe World Turtle Day.

The annual date raises awareness for turtles and tortoise, and the threats they face due to climate change, loss of habitat and human-interference.

As one of the Cayman Islands’ national symbols, turtles have played a huge role in our natural and cultural history.

The Department of Environment (DoE)and environmental NGOs continue to support our local turtle population and educate the community on conservation.

The Department of Environment’s Brent Fuller and Janice Blumenthal shared the following with Yello: 

How is the turtle population in Cayman doing? Have we seen any increase or decrease in numbers over the last year or two?

The resurgence of Cayman’s nesting sea turtle population is one of our great success stories over the past two decades. In 1998/99, when DoE first started the annual monitoring and protection programme, we recorded just 39 nests combined on all three islands. Last year, we recorded 406 and the year before in 2017, there were more than 500! Three species of turtles, greens, loggerheads and hawksbills nest in Cayman.

What would you say is the most pressing threat to Cayman’s turtle populations at the moment?

Nesting sea turtles face a myriad of threats, but among the most dangerous (and preventable) is the emission of bright, unnatural light from beachfront condos and streetlamps. These lights draw baby turtles away from the sea and toward the land where they can die. Poaching of adult nesting turtles has always been, and remains, a serious threat to Cayman’s turtle population.

You’ve been encouraging awareness among youth with classroom discussions, presentations and appearances at school fairs. How has the response been from local students, and why is educating young people so important?

DoE has been giving ‘turtle talks’ and other presentations at local schools from pre-school to high school for many years. We try to bring science to the students in interesting and tangible ways, such as live underwater video feeds during the annual ‘Grouper Moon’ project and field trips with scientists performing turtle nest excavations on local beaches, among others.

Science is already a part of the local public and private schools’ curricula, but learning science from a book isn’t the same as learning it in the field. We hope a few students come to join us at the DoE someday!

What other programmes does the DoE currently facilitate for turtle conservation and awareness?

In addition to annual turtle beach nest monitoring, we are developing our turtle-friendly lighting programme for beachfront condos and streetlamps. We are attempting to incentivise developers and building managers to use amber-coloured lights that don’t draw the turtles away from the sea. Our conservation officers are constantly monitoring the beaches for poachers during nesting season.

How can the community get involved with turtle conservation efforts?

We have an extensive ‘turtle team’ – volunteers on all three islands – who help DoE keep track of all our turtle nests during nesting season (usually between May and November).

For the general public, we would advise looking into turtle-friendly lighting, if you live on the beach and if you don’t have it already. Residents should always make sure to clear impediments to adult nesting turtles on the beach at night (chairs, water sports equipment etc.) so those turtles have a clear path.

Picking up discarded trash, like plastic and glass items from your beach also helps the hatchlings. If you are using heavy equipment on a beach, make sure to contact the DoE first – bulldozers and similar equipment can crush turtle nests. Also, remember to obtain the proper permits before attempting a beach bonfire.

Do your part to protect Cayman’s turtles this World Turtle Day, and year round. For more information on the initiative, visit the World Turtle Day website.

Sources: World Turtle Day, and the Cayman Islands Department of Environment.