Every species on the earth has its specific place and particular role in the ecosystem. Marine turtles are no different. They are a small part of ocean species that need to be treated with respect and care, and should be regarded as part of a rich marine heritage. They are among the most ancient vertebrate species on the planet, dating back to the days of dinosaurs and can provide important economic benefits to communities. They are appreciated attractions all over the world, generating tourism revenues for the communities where they can be frequently seen.
St. Croix and its agencies, such as the National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, and the Nature Conservancy, play an important role in the preservation of endangered sea turtles, such as the leatherback and hawksbill. Preservational efforts also extend to the threatened green turtle. According to studies by the National Park Service, of the three turtles, the hawksbill turtle is the most endangered in the Eastern Caribbean.
According to an article written by the NPS Chief of Resource Manager, Zandy Hillis-Starr, the hawksbill turtle has been harvested for meat, leather, and eggs but mainly for its beautiful shell. According to Hillis-Starr’s report, the tortoise shell industry began in the Virgin Islands in the 1920’s, when the shells were sought to produce,believe it or not, barrettes. The North Florida Fish and Wildlife Service’s Fact sheet states “the legal hawksbill shell trade ended when Japan agreed to stop importing shells in 1993.” However, a significant illegal trade continues.”
So, what’s being done locally to protect these beautiful turtles? A lot. The National Park Service is working diligently to better understand the biological and nesting behavior of the hawksbill. They hope to expand resources that can help guarantee the survival of the turtles. Also, from July to October, nightly patrols take place on known nesting beaches, such as Buck Island National Monument off St. Croix’s North East coastline. These allow NPS staff to record nesting turtles in an effort to understand their behavior, site selection, re-migration intervals, and the number of eggs they lay as well as their growth rate. According to research done by Hillis-Starr and other NPS research staff and volunteers, “Over 50 percent of the hawksbill turtles nesting at Buck Island have contributed to the genetic analysis of the remaining hawksbill populations in the Caribbean.” She continues, “…analyses indicate that Buck Island nesting hawksbill turtles are not part of a larger population, but genetically distinct and isolated from hawksbill turtles nesting in Puerto Rico, Antigua, and Barbados.”
The hawksbill turtles found on St. Croix have shown a substantial genetic similarity to hawksbills sampled in Belize and Nicaragua. To gain additional knowledge in the movement of nesting hawksbill turtles, the National Park Service, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implemented a radio-and-sonar telemetry project. This project helped to determine that nesting hawksbill turtles remain in close proximity to Buck Island during their nesting period with immediate departure after laying their final nest, or clutch, of the season.
Other critical information was the result of a study at the University of Alabama. To meet recovery goals of the Caribbean hawksbill, the University had to evolve a non-lethal method to determine the sex of hatchlings. It was concluded that incubation temperature rather than an X or Y chromosome, determined sex. This information, in addition to the recorded beach temperatures, will allow hawksbill advocates to determine the ratios of males and females produced on Buck Island without having to jeopardize any of the hatchlings.
The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services do not work alone. With the help of volunteers, data can be collected, organized, reported, and archived for the purpose of further research. The hard work of volunteers is crucial to the maintenance of the National Park’s sea turtle research program. Interns, biologists, and others, from many different walks of life, have made countless visits to St. Croix’s beaches in order to help gather information, excavate nests, record data, and simply lend helping hands. One huge supporter of the NPS is the Buccaneer Hotel. Hillis-Starr expresses her great appreciation for the help. “From 1993 to 1996 and again in 1998 to the present, the Buccaneer has supported…summer interns for three months. These interns provided technical field support for the Buck Island Sea Turtle Research Program and environmental education for visitors.”
With help from so many sources, the understanding of these highly complex marine reptiles, and the probability of increasing their population is a dream, gradually becoming a reality.
Here are a few facts that will help you better understand the hawksbill turtle:
* Females locate nesting sites above the levels of the highest tide, typically within, or under, terrestrial vegetation.
* They make more than one attempt at nesting; usually if safety for their potential nesting spot seems to be at risk.
* Nests are usually 10-90 cm below the sand’s surface.
* Incubation time varies mainly due to temperature but is usually between 7 to 10 weeks.
* Hatching usually occurs at night.
* These turtles are endangered and need respect. If you come in contact with them or their nests, please, just look. Do not touch.