Sea turtles are a pleasant feature of aquatic Caribbean life, but they are in danger from human hunting to climate change. But they do have a champion, an instructor at the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine (RUSVM) has been actively involved in protecting the species for the past 14 years.
Dr. Kimberly Stewart,DVM, of RUSVM saw the need to develop a long-term sea turtle monitoring and protection program. She founded The St. Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network (SKSTMN), a community based non-profit organization in January 2003, which monitors nesting sea turtle populations and acts as an advocate for the strengthening of sea turtle protection laws.
The non-profit works in conjunction with the St. Kitts Department of Marine Resources and a number of national, regional and international agencies along with local citizens.
Dr. Stewart, in an exclusive interview with the Observer, indicated that there are typically three species of sea turtles in the Federation…the Leatherback, hawksbill and green sea turtle.
She indicated that they started work in 2003 after it was noticed that there was a need for regular monitoring programmes to determine what was going on with the sea turtle population in St. Kitts and Nevis and also to create public awareness, because all species of sea turtles are endangered or critically endangered.
“We were primarily going out at mornings and determining how many nests they are having and trying to get an idea of the population.”
Dr. Stewart also explained how the tourism industry here in St. Kitts and Nevis is is affecting the the sea turtles.
“I think we have some major positives and I think we have some areas to work on. The positives would be the fact that tourism creates awareness, what we have in St. Kitts and Nevis is providing an environment where educating individuals in the fact that there are sea turtles.
“Many tourists are coming into St. Kitts seeking sea turtle interactions, so it is very helpful to have them come in and work in eco-tourism activities they can participate in which not only educates the participants but also contributes to the programme as well.”
The RUSVM instructor indicated that with the development of tourism there has been some major changes in the environment in some cases that have an effect on the turtles.
She explained that the removal of beach vegetation and the placement of beach umbrellas and chairs has a negative impact but spoke to ways they have adopted to help remedy the situation.
“One of the ways we have tried to improve that is to create an incentivized Turtle Improvement Programme in which businesses can come on board voluntarily, can meet certain criteria, qualified as turtle approved and then advertised to visitors as turtle approved businesses.”
She noted that the tourism industry has helped to significantly reduce the harvesting of sea turtles for human consumption. “I think that there are many positive benefits and I know that tourism has helped the decreased of harvesting sea turtles here in St. Kitts because we have been able to provide alternative sources of income for former sea turtle fishermen.”
Dr Stewart added that there is an open season for certain harvesting of turtles that runs from October to February and was asked how difficult it was to protect the turtles in that period.
She explained that speaking with the individuals who were involved in the sea turtle harvesting and finding out they were interested in alternative job opportunities. “Harvesting still occurs…but it has significantly reduced although it still present it has an impact on the nesting population.”
Dr Stewart also discussed what has been the response to her work throughout the Caribbean.
She said, “Positively, because sea turtles are migratory and in the case of leatherbacks which were our main nesting species for a very long time, we have seen a crash in their population. They can actually travel up to 12,000 miles between their nesting and foraging grounds.
“They are highly migratory and if we are not working together nationally, regionally and internationally we can’t protect them effectively.”
She also indicated that her organisation is a part of the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST).
Dr Stewart was also questioned as to how much sea turtles have been positively impacted by their work. “That will be very difficult to determine because of the different life stage…of all the hatchlings that leave here only one in 1000 actually survive to adulthood and some of them we won’t see for 45 years, so I can’t say specifically.”
She however noted that nesting females are being protected and the hawksbill and greens their populations are being monitored.
Dr. Stewart however noted that the nests constantly fall prey to mongoose who often feast on the turtle eggs.
She explained that it might be decades before they could fully gauge the impact of the work that they are doing.
“We are protecting, but I how that is affecting the population throughout the region it might take decades to determine because sea turtles only nest typically two to five years.”
She then gave a breakdown as to how the loss of these sea turtles can negatively impact the environment.
“Sea turtles are a very important species and have a very specific diet. For example leatherbacks feed almost entirely on jelly fish and jelly fish feed on fish larvae, so we call leatherbacks the fisher man’s friend. If we have a decrease in leather back population then we are going to have a boom in jellyfish and a decrease in fishing industry. If we keep the population in check and healthy, then we will also have healthy fishing industry.”
She continued, “Hawksbills feed on sponges and keep those in check helping to contribute for a healthy environment for diving and snorkelling. While the greens eat almost entirely sea grass and algae so they are keeping the sea grass beds off shore healthy to help protect against coastal erosion. Also those sea grass beds serves as nurseries for some crustaceans as well.”
Part two of this interview will be published in next week’s paper which will highlight the role government can play in the protection of sea turtles