Connecting the Dots for Turtle Conservation

Researchers measure a green turtle at Atol das Rocas, Brazil. © Projeto TAMAR Image Bank

Researchers measure a green turtle at Atol das Rocas, Brazil. © Projeto TAMAR Image Bank

By BRYAN WALLACE

When you look at a typical global map of nesting sites for any sea turtle species—such as the maps in previous SWOT Reports—what you see is a lot of dots. But beneath each of those dots lies much more than meets the eye. Before a dot can be plotted at all, researchers first toil long days and nights on the beach, recording nests or nesting females and then contribute their hard-won data to SWOT’s database, allowing spatial analysts to collate similar nesting data from around the world into a standardized global map of nesting distribution. The result is the sea turtle version of that famous snapshot of planet Earth from outer space—beautiful and engaging, particularly because of the details you know are there but cannot see from such a distance.

As beautiful and engaging as these nesting beach maps are, they are also incomplete. The latitude and longitude of sea turtle nests can be recorded and mapped for all to see and explore. But those individual dots are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we need to really understand turtle biology and to undertake turtle conservation. Turtles move around a lot, as it turns out. Adult males don’t migrate between feeding and breeding areas in the same way that adult females do. Juvenile turtles don’t (yet) care about nesting beaches. Turtles that have originated from genetically distinct rookeries often share feeding and nursery areas. Even newly hatched turtles leave those discrete map dots and venture into the great blue open ocean, guided by cues we are only beginning to understand.

All of these aspects of turtle life history mean that, while dealing with threats to turtles on nesting beaches might appear to be adequate, beach successes alone are not enough since the majority of threats to sea turtles are at sea. Plotting beach dots on a map is easy, but the crucial task is to figure out how we can connect the beach dots to the at-sea dots representing foraging, breeding, and migration to form a cohesive picture of turtle biogeography that matches the scales at which sea turtles operate—from sites to regions and back again. To gain this much-needed multi-scale perspective, we need multi-scale collaboration among different people and organizations and across local, state, and international borders.

Collaboration across boundaries is not a new concept in the sea turtle conservation community. A number of treaties and other multilateral agreements explicitly encourage member countries to collaborate in setting priorities, training personnel, collecting and reporting data, involving the public, and so on. Two examples of such multi-lateral agreements are the Indian Ocean–South-East Asian Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding (IOSEA) and the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles (IAC). Both IOSEA and IAC provide a forum for representatives of member governments to develop strategies and share information about sea turtle conservation and monitoring in their regions.

In addition to intergovernmental entities, many hands-on initiatives to address the need for regional integration of monitoring and conservation efforts have been operating for decades. For example, the Wider Caribbean Region is home to six of the world’s seven sea turtle species, but it also comprises almost 50 nations and territories, a handful of official languages (and dozens of dialects), and a rich human cultural history with roots in several other parts of the world. From a sea turtle monitoring perspective, the region could represent lots of data dots but not many connections.

Enter the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, better known as WIDECAST. Founded more than 30 years ago and led for most of that time by Karen Eckert, WIDECAST is “an expert network of biologists, managers, community leaders and educators … committed to an integrated, regional capacity that ensures the recovery and sustainable management of depleted sea turtle populations.” Put another way, WIDECAST provides the common language—and venue—for people from all corners of the Caribbean to work together to study and protect sea turtles and to share experiences, ideas, and information.

WIDECAST country coordinators meet annually, and have woven an enduring fabric of friendships and collaboration that have produced numerous resources to aid managers, researchers, and the public in efforts to raise awareness and implement best practices in sea turtle conservation. These efforts include manuals for nesting beach monitoring, egg hatcheries, turtle tagging, mitigating influences of artificial lighting and coastal development, sea turtle injury response and husbandry, and responsible ecotourism. Dozens of locally run research and monitoring efforts have been started, each with mentoring from the network’s more experienced project leaders and each with access to a unique treasure trove of resources designed specifically for the Caribbean context.

Plotting beach dots on a map is easy, but the crucial task is to figure out how we can connect the beach dots to the at-sea dots representing foraging, breeding, and migration to form a cohesive picture of turtle biogeography that matches the scales at which sea turtles operate— from sites to regions and back again.

These collective monitoring and information sharing efforts culminated recently in WIDECAST’s Atlas of Sea Turtle Nesting Habitat for the Wider Caribbean Region, a region-wide summary of more than 1,300 known sea turtle nesting sites, including legal status, threats, and management actions. It provides a thorough perspective of sea turtle distribution and conservation status from site to regional scale and is a model for other groups around the world.

Fortunately, WIDECAST is not working alone. Countless international networks, organizations, meetings, movements, and research initiatives around the world have a common goal of scaling up sea turtle research and conservation efforts to achieve broader impacts. In the Southwest Indian Ocean, researchers pooled seasonal data on green turtle nesting that had been collected at sites scattered across thousands of kilometers to create a cohesive, region wide view of how nesting varies with environmental conditions. In their study, published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, Mayeul Dalleau and his colleagues showed that nesting seasons were in sync in the northern part of the region but were different from eastern and southern rookeries and that variations in feeding areas used by different rookeries could be the reason for the differences. On the other side of the globe, colleagues from Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay have also rallied around the turtle populations that inhabit their nations’ shared waters. Putting aside their intense fútbol rivalries, sea turtle specialists from the three countries formed a vibrant community called ASO (after the Spanish term for Southwest Atlantic Ocean), which organizes regular symposia, undertakes collaborative research efforts, and supports region wide conservation initiatives.

With so many initiatives focused at site and regional scales, a global perspective is extremely useful for assessing sea turtle status and establishing global priorities to guide activities around the world. The Marine Turtle Specialist Group (MTSG)—part of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—has filled this very important niche for sea turtle scientists, managers, and policymakers since 1966. By leveraging the collective expertise of its hundreds of experts from all over the world, the MTSG has gone beyond its primary mandate of performing Red List assessments. Recently, it redefined how sea turtle populations are described and assessed, and created the first global portfolio of conservation and research priorities for all sea turtle species and populations. This work is influencing how limited resources are being allocated to prevent extinctions and to ensure the recovery of sea turtle populations around the world.

A student looks on as a green turtle fitted with a satellite tracking device returns to the sea on Glorieuses Island in the French Îles Éparses. The turtle was tracked as part of a study to identify foraging areas and monitor postnesting movements. © Jérôme Bourjea

A student looks on as a green turtle fitted with a satellite tracking device returns to the sea on Glorieuses Island in the French Îles Éparses. The turtle was tracked as part of a study to identify foraging areas and monitor postnesting movements. © Jérôme Bourjea

So what is to be done once all of this information is gathered by so many different groups, operating at different geographical scales? How can information gathered from all corners of the globe best be organized and presented? In an encouraging trend, answers increasingly can be found in freely available online tools that make collaborative research and communication easier than ever. SWOT is one example, through its data management partnership with Duke University’s Ocean Biogeographic Information System–Spatial Ecological Analysis of Megavertebrate Populations (OBIS-SEAMAP) project. Another excellent example of this is Seaturtle.org. If you are active in sea turtle research or conservation, it’s likely that you have used one of Seaturtle.org’s tools, resources, databases, or server space in the past few days or even hours. It hosts online discussion lists and forums for working groups, an online bibliography of sea turtle–themed publications, and an online nesting data management tool. It also offers valuable services such as an international directory of sea turtle researchers and conservationists and a jobs board.

But perhaps Seaturtle.org’s most popular technical service is the Satellite Tracking and Analysis Tool (STAT). Although satellite telemetry is widely used to figure out where sea turtles go when they’re not in plain sight, the task of sifting through nearly unintelligible data relayed from satellite tags can be cumbersome, to say the least. This is where STAT comes in: researchers can open a free STAT account, enter their tag’s ID information, set a few filters based on the details of their study, and STAT does the rest.

More than 1,000 projects—not all of them tracking turtles, by the way—have used STAT’s user-friendly interface to set up tracking studies, process data, and even obtain publication-quality maps (using yet another Seaturtle.org product called Maptool). And because so many users rely on STAT, it has created a de facto community of researchers whose collective data represent a treasure trove of information about important turtle areas around the world. For example, a recent study, led by Becky Scott from the University of Exeter (U.K.) and published in Global Ecology and Biogeography, analyzed satellite tracking data from several projects around the world that had used STAT to process raw satellite data. Scott and her colleagues analyzed green turtle movements and habitat use in relation to marine protected areas (MPAs) and found that more than a third of all turtles were tracked within MPA boundaries, highlighting the importance of well-established and well-maintained protected areas. Without the common platform offered by Seaturtle.org, these kinds of meta-analyses, which combine data from otherwise unrelated projects and people, would be nearly impossible.

Integrating information from different places and across spatial scales is one thing, but what about integrating information from different projects that use different methods, perhaps even on the same turtle population? SWOT ran headlong into this problem when we started collecting and mapping global nesting data, because we found out quickly that no two nesting beaches, monitoring protocols, or turtle nesting populations are identical. To display and analyze nesting data collected using disparate methods, we assembled a group of sea turtle monitoring experts who came up with the first globally applicable data standards for nesting beach monitoring (see SWOT Report, Vol. 6, 47). So now, no matter where a beach is or what species is nesting there, we have a way to standardize and compare the data generated by different monitoring techniques. And thanks to our global SWOT Team of data providers, the SWOT database now contains and displays data from more than 3,000 distinct nesting sites across all sea turtle species, all of which have been classified according to our minimum data standards. And we are not stopping there (see the SWOT Team updates, 34)!

So the next time you look at a map of sea turtle nesting sites or turtle tracks zig-zagging across an ocean basin, remember that although each dot or line stands for a project, an organization, and at least part of a turtle population, it does not stand alone. Scores of people, organizations, research projects, online tools, intergovernmental treaties, and many others are working diligently and creatively to connect those dots. And as they do, our picture of sea turtle life histories that span borders, beaches, and ocean ecosystems will come into better focus, along with our plans on how to safeguard them.