R2R: Can you tell us a bit more about SEE Turtles and how you became involved with the organization?
BN: I started SEE Turtles with biologist Dr. Wallace “J.” Nichols in 2007 while working with Ocean Conservancy. Both of us had seen how tourism could directly benefit sea turtle conservation efforts and local communities (he in Baja and myself in Costa Rica), but we realized that nobody was promoting sea turtle conservation tourism in a systematic way. Lots of small turtle conservation projects hope to incorporate tourism as a way to generate income and involve local residents, but few have the budget or skills to reach the US travel market. SEE Turtles was launched to the public in early 2008 to fill that need; since then we’ve generated more than $130,000 for turtle conservation and nearby communities.
R2R: Why are sea turtles important to healthy marine environments?
BN: Sea turtles are keystone species for the places they inhabit and play a crucial role in keeping the ecosystem in balance. Some species of turtles like leatherbacks help to control populations of jellyfish, while others like green turtles help keep sea grass healthy by grazing. The organic material left behind by turtle nests helps to fertilize beach vegetation. Also, turtle hatchlings and eggs provide a source of food for a huge number of animals, ranging from ants to birds and fish to mammals like raccoons.
R2R: We know you spent time working with leatherbacks in Costa Rica. How do the nesting beaches of Trinidad compare?
BN: The nesting beaches in Trinidad are like nothing I’ve ever seen. The places where I worked in Costa Rica get 500 or so nests in a season along 5 miles of beach; one beach in Trinidad (Grande Riviere) can have 500 nests in a single night on less than 2 miles! Its inspiring to see such numbers when other beaches have had a 90% drop in nesting. These numbers make these beaches among a handful in the world where seeing an adult turtle is guaranteed for most of the season and make them among the most accessible for travelers. The other unique thing about Trinidad is that you can take pictures of the turtles that are still on the beach when the sun rises.
R2R: All sea turtles are listed as endangered species. What are some of the reasons they’re in decline?
BN: The two biggest reasons they are endangered are entanglement in fishing gear and poaching of their meat, eggs, and shells. Tens of thousands of turtles are caught and die in fishing gear every year when turtles get caught on hooks or in nets and can’t reach the surface to breathe; shrimp nets are probably the biggest culprit. Even though eating turtle eggs and meat and using their shells is illegal now in most countries, its still a huge problem. Enforcement of laws by local authorities and strong cultural beliefs that the eggs are an aphrodisiac make ending the sale of turtle eggs a challenge in many countries around the world. Other threats include oil drilling (on everyone’s mind at the moment), unsustainable coastal development, and ocean pollution (especially plastic). However, one thing that conservationists have learned is that where key habitats are protected over the long-term, turtle numbers can recover. Trinidad is a great example of how turtle populations can thrive when the residents work to ensure their protection.
R2R: What are some things that people can do to help facilitate marine turtle conservation around the world?
BN: There are lots of things that people can do to help encourage turtle conservation. Besides visiting turtle conservation projects and leaving donations, people can adapt their eating habits to only eat seafood caught in a sustainable way (Seafood Watch is a great resource – www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx). Reducing the amount of plastic is another great way to protect turtles, by doing things like using reusable bags and water bottles. We also encourage people to get active and advocate for turtle-friendly policies and business practices; join our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/SEEturtles) for the latest news and action alerts.
In 2011, Reefs to Rockies is launching itineraries to Trinidad in partnership with SEE Turtles to see leatherback sea turtles in Grande Riviere. A donation to leatherback conservation efforts in Trinidad will be made on behalf of all trip participants. Visit www.reefstorockies.com for more information.