The recent unfortunate death of endangered hatchling sea turtles at Grande Riviere, Trinidad W.I. has brought international condemnation and an outpouring of emotion. This time, it is not just the turtle huggers. Many people have expressed pain, frustration and disappointment in the manner in which the situation was handled.
The blame game is in full swing with the EMA (Environmental Management Authority) on its heels, the Ministry of Works promising answers, and the Ministry of Environment jumping in. Even unfortunate hotel owners, dogs and vultures have been caught in the cross-fire of accusation. There is heated discussion over whose opinion counts, and how many turtles were crushed (20,000, two or 200), but the numbers are not the issue.
What is clear is that something terrible occurred. It seems that authorities responded only when we reached a crisis, and this time when a lot of turtles died, many people got upset.
There are a lot of good reasons to get upset about turtles and it is worth paying attention to their story, their world, and their struggles. Turtles are hit first and harder by many of the same pressing challenges that face our society. Simply put, their problems are our problems too.
What Sea Turtles Do For a Living
Like us, sea turtles make use of beaches, coastal waters and the open ocean. Most of us only see them on land, nesting or as hatchlings. At this point in their lives, they need a viable beach to lay their eggs, preferably bulldozer, light and poacher free. The rest of their story involves the sea. Leatherback turtles spend time following jellyfish (their preferred food source) around the Atlantic Ocean and use our coastal waters during the breeding and nesting season.
Erosion - Slip sliding away
The warm, blue, pristine sea, coconut palms waving in the breeze, so scenic and calming. But the land and sea do not always meet on such peaceful terms. Coasts are a dynamic, changing and sometimes terrifying place, as we see when hurricanes or tsunamis hit.
As Grande Riviere demonstrated, sea turtles can be dramatically affected by erosion and beach loss along the coast, from both the ocean and inland rivers. It is not just Grande Riviere. Some of Tobago’s turtle beaches are also suffering the effects of erosion. North East Sea Turtles Tobago’s (NEST) Project Coordinator, Grant Walker, indicated that this season, important hawksbill turtle nesting beaches have lost as much as 70% of their nestable area due to dynamic coastal action.
What about people? Experts estimate that nearly 40% of the world lives near the ocean (within 100km). T&T is a small island state and surprise, surprise we’re surrounded by water! How far away are you from the ocean? Trinbagoanians are all about the interface of land and sea and like the turtles we rely on it being a pretty friendly one. We have buildings, communities and livelihoods that depend on a fairly stable coastline. With nearly all of our wealth and infrastructure located in coastal areas, and with climate change projections predicting increased severe weather and rising sea levels, like the turtles, we are quite vulnerable.
Pollution - If the Sea is Our Toilet Bowl
We have a saying, “The sea cleans itself.” I really wish this was true. Just because we cannot see the pollutants in our waters does not mean that they are not there. Mercury, cadmium, lead, organochlorines such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and other products of our industrial society end up in our coastal waters and oceans. Some of these bioaccumulate (become concentrated) in large long-lived fish near the top of the food-chain such as tuna, king fish and shark. They also accumulate in sea turtles, adversely affecting their health.
These contaminants also end up on our plates when we eat fish, seafood or turtle. They have been shown to have a host of health effects on humans. For turtle meat particularly, chelonitoxism, a type of food poisoning caused by eating turtle meat is associated with deleterious health effects including vomiting, diarrhoea, extreme dehydration and even death.
Monitoring programmes for these contaminants in our food, in the environment, and in turtles are currently limited, although we are working with collaborators to begin monitoring turtles next year. In essence, the health of turtles can be an indicator of the challenge we face with pollutants in our environment.
Garbage – It has to go somewhere
T&T is consuming like never before. Thank goodness for PriceSmart and cheap flights to Miami. But with more people and more stuff comes more garbage. Our landfills are rapidly turning into land-fulls. Plastic in particular is a blessing and a curse; so useful, but difficult to dispose of. The environmental group Papa Bois Conservation recently found plastic bottles made in Trinidad washed ashore in Mexico and international studies are showing vast areas of plastic collecting in our oceans.
Sea turtles, particularly leatherbacks, end up eating plastic bags floating in the water, mistaking them for jellyfish. We have seen this first hand doing necropsies (an autopsy for animals) on deceased sea turtles, where we found their organs clogged with plastic. It is a slow, painful way to die when your digestive system ceases to function because it is clogged and poisons you.
As with pollutants, if the ocean is our garbage dump, we shouldn’t expect our food to be free from it.
Overfishing – An emptying ocean
International reports are regularly ringing alarm bells about our emptying oceans. In T&T, Cedros fishermen have been raising concerns about decreasing fish catches and excessive trawling. Ironically, the fewer fish there are, the more effort we put in to catch them. Unfortunately, bigger boats and more technology do not mean more fish.
It is now illegal to hunt or destroy turtles and their nests in T&T, but the regulation is hard to enforce. As recently as last week, five nesting turtles were poached at L’anse Fourmi, Tobago. Even with the best intentions some turtles will be caught as bycatch. Experts estimate that this kills more sea turtles in T&T than all other factors combined. Also, sea turtles range widely through an ocean full of nets and hooks. They are a regular casualty of our emptying oceans. Simply put, sea turtles are tied to our increasingly fragile food security.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
We are a very rich nation. We have oil, nice cars and great fetes, but we also have fertile soil, clean water, verdant forests and a staggering diversity of living creatures. One of the many reasons the Grande Riviere issue attracted international attention was that elsewhere in the world, people cannot imagine a place where a critically endangered species crawls all over the beach. Imagine walking through a bamboo grove full of pandas. Who would bulldoze that?
When all the shin-kicking is finished, what comes next? Who will help community member, Sherwin Reyz who was close to tears, the communities working to patrol beaches and make a sustainable living off of turtles, the hotel owner who tried to alert someone months ago, the fishermen whose nets catch less fish but still entangle turtles? Like so many of the challenges we, and sea turtles face, it is not a Ministry of Health problem, or a Ministry of Environment problem, or even a Ministry of Energy problem. It is OUR problem.
In a way, the baby turtles are asking us a question. Can we work together to take advantage of the change we see coming? This is not a choice of people or turtles, it is about people and turtles. We can’t avoid the intimate connections.
The alternative, as eloquently expressed by the environmentalist David Suzuki, and demonstrated by the debacle at Grande Riviere, do we spend our time arguing about who gets to sit where on a bus that’s driving towards a brick wall?
See the following links for more on the Grande Riviere incident:
The local environmental group: Papa Bois Conservation
Thanks to awesome turtle folks, Michelle Cazabon-Mannette, M.Phil. Candidate at UWI St. Augustine, with 6 years experience studying sea turtles and Grant Walker, Project Coordinator for North East Sea Turtles (NEST)
Healthy, Happy Animals - Healthy, Happy Communities