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World Sea Turtle Day: Satellite Tags Reveal Migration Patterns of Endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtles, Show Alarming Results

Jun 16, 2016 04:50 PM EDT
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In April, environment group Nature Conservancy launched the first hawksbill sea turtle satellite tagging program at the Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area in Solomon Islands, the largest and first community-managed marine protected area in the country.

Along with local conservation officers, satellite tags were placed on 10 hawksbill turtles at the start of their peak nesting season in order to unravel their nesting habitats and migration patterns. The Conservancy used the Argos/GPS Fastloc satellite tracks, the latest in tracking technologies.

As the World Sea Turtle Day is celebrated today, June 16, this effort aims to further protect and conserve turtles. Like other sea turtle species, hawksbills are considered critically endangered, with worldwide populations declining about 80 percent in the past three turtle generations.

(Photo :  Tim Calver/Nature Conservancy) Conservation officers and The Nature Conservancy scientists release tagged hawksbill turtle.

What present data reveal

Current findings from Nature Conservancy show that turtles spent most of their time in the protected area in the Arnavons, which kept them safe from poachers. They are also observed to jump from one beach to another for their nesting.

Data also show that six of the tagged turtles have finished nesting and are migrating back to their foraging grounds. As of June 7, three are heading to Australia (back to the Great Barrier Reef), one is currently in Papua New Guinea while the last is at the end of the Isabel Province.

Movements of five turtles that have migrated from Arnavons nesting grounds, as of June 7.

The impact of climate change, however, is very evident in the situation of the hawksbills. The region between Cook town and Cairns where the two turtles migrated to have been severely impacted by climate change, with half of its coral reefs bleached.

Coral reefs are very significant for the hawksbills, as they depend on these reefs for food. Many of them will return to a different situation in their original foraging grounds, from what they left 3 to 4 months ago when they started their migration to Arnavons to nest.

This discovery highlights that while the hawksbill sea turtles survived poaching in the protected area, the sea turtles are going back to severely damaged and bleached foraging grounds, which offers them no security for food.

Threats still persist

Their threats to sea turtles include illegal turtle shell trade, harvesting for meat, egg collection and bycatch in tuna fisheries. Habitat loss caused by climate change and beach development are also major threats to their species.

The threats to these turtles are real and still persisting, as two of the tagged turtle were poached shortly after the tags were put in place.

In the Arnavons, the total nesting population is at 2,000 to 4,000 turtles. While they may be safe in the protected area, more action must be done to stop sea turtle hunting and poaching that take place in their foraging grounds.

Richard Hamilton of Nature Conservancy said turtles are at 10 percent of their numbers from a century ago, and that roughly only one of every 1,000 turtle eggs make it to adulthood.

The group aims to tag 10 more hawksbills per year in 2017 and 2018.

The interactive turtle tracking map can be accessed at www.nature.org/seaturtle.

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