Masirah’s Sea Turtles: History, Trends, Action and Hope

A loggerhead nests on Masirah Island, Oman. © JÉRÔME BOURJEA

A loggerhead nests on Masirah Island, Oman. © JÉRÔME BOURJEA

By ANDREW WILLSON, CRAIG TURLEY, MAÏA SARROUF WILLSON, SUAAD AL HARTHI, ASMA AL BULUSHI, MAYEUL DALLEAU, JÉRÔME BOURJEA, THURAYA AL SARIRI, and ROBERT BALDWIN

A Tale of Discovery and Decline

Flanking the central coast of the Sultanate of Oman, less than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) offshore, the dry, rugged desert island of Masirah hosts one of the most important loggerhead turtle rookeries in the world. In 1977, the scent of a major turtle discovery in Arabia had reached the nose of the renowned Dr. Archie Carr. Soon after, a joint initiative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and World Wildlife Fund was launched, and Dr. James Perran Ross began a pioneering project there.

Spending much of the next three years embedded with the local community on Masirah, Ross helped to shape a team of young fishermen into turtle rangers. The rangers were responsible for enforcing new antipoaching regulations and assisting Oman’s Marine Science and Fisheries Centre with an ambitious turtle research program. Foot patrol track counts, night surveys, and exhaustive tagging efforts provided the data for a landmark 1979 report about the ecology of the four sea turtle species nesting on the island. The prize of this report was the estimation that a minimum of 30,000 loggerheads nest on the island each year, “representing the largest known aggregation of this species in the world,” according to Ross.

By May 2008, Masirah’s turtle rangers, under the management of Oman’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA), had regrouped with help from turtle scientists supported by the Environment Society of Oman, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and local experts at Five Oceans Environmental Services (5OES). A new research strategy was designed to use both the prior 30 years of data and a new survey protocol to investigate long-term population trends of nesting loggerheads. By 2015, sufficient evidence had been amassed to declare Masirah’s loggerheads (called the Northwest Indian Ocean subpopulation) critically endangered on the IUCN Red List (see SWOT Report, vol. XII, “The Population Status of Loggerhead Populations Worldwide”). This unexpected assessment of decline and heightened risk of extinction had been suspected some years earlier, but the official declaration motivated a cascade of cross-discipline questions about precisely how and when it had happened and, more important, what could be done in response.

Out at Sea, Out of Mind?

Telemetry studies initiated in 2006 by the Masirah Turtle Conservation Project and MECA drew the first lines of loggerhead movements beyond the beach and showed the interesting habitat close to shore and migratory movements predominantly to the south into the Gulf of Aden. Soon after, results from new nesting beach surveys began to ring alarm bells in the local community. Counts were not reaching historical levels, and rangers began to ask why. If the causes of the decline were from human impacts, were those threats occurring on the beaches, at sea from industrial fisheries, or—even unintentionally— as a result of the local artisanal fisheries?

All Aboard

One of the first proactive responses to such questions was the launch of a community engagement project in 2010 to characterize Masirah’s fisheries and to better understand and quantify the possible impacts of bycatch. In a study led by the Environment Society of Oman (ESO), by 2013 more than 15 percent of Masirah’s 600-vessel fleet had contributed to interview-based surveys. Preliminary results indicated that an estimated 3,000–9,000 turtles were being captured in net fisheries each year, approximately 2,000 of which were thought to be loggerheads. Such a high level of bycatch was sufficient to prompt the next phase: a remote fisheries observer program backed by a full-time coordinator to gather data, engage with fishers, and explore techniques for bycatch reduction. Still in progress today, this work combines the results of tracking vessels and capturing automated images of vessel activities. Using spatial analysis of turtle movements from telemetry data, the project plots co-occurrence of fishing effort with turtle movements to monitor and reduce levels of bycatch.

A loggerhead hatchling crawls toward the sea in Oman. © JÉRÔME BOURJEA;

A loggerhead hatchling crawls toward the sea in Oman. © JÉRÔME BOURJEA;

Surprise From the South

In the meantime, a much broader picture of loggerhead ecology was emerging far to the south. A regional turtle connectivity project instigated by the French research institute IFREMER and the Reunion Island–based organization Kelonia used satellite transmitters to track subadult loggerheads captured in the European long-line fleet that is operating in the Southern Indian Ocean. Dozens of tracked turtles headed toward the shores of Oman, with genetic sequencing confirming that the youngsters were from the Masirah rookery (see SWOT Report, vol. VII, “Revealing the Secrets of Sea Turtle Migrations in the Southwest Indian Ocean”). Not only had this team documented new insights into movements of the species across the Indian Ocean basin, but also they had documented interactions with high seas fisheries and had discovered high levels of plastic ingestion by Omani loggerheads found close to Reunion Island. The conservation situation was becoming even more complex.

Back to the Beach

The nesting rookery itself has not been left behind in efforts to understand the broader conservation situation. With the hiring of full-time field researchers on Masirah, the capacity to investigate conservation concerns on the island vastly increased. That expansion included the addition of almost year-round surveys to monitor nesting activity of loggerheads and three other turtle species, as well as island-wide stranding and beach use surveys to monitor anthropogenic disturbances such as egg poaching and the seasonal distribution of fisheries.

Behavior Changes

Working with Masirah communities starting in 2008, ESO and government stakeholders initiated projects to complement the ongoing research activities. Projects to raise awareness included school festivals, a sea turtle–inspired football league, bycatch workshops for fishermen, and workshops with the local Omani Women’s Association for the development of eco-crafts. In 2014, 50 permanent signs were installed on the turtle nesting beaches to guide visitors’ conduct; in 2018, organizers plan to launch a media event, with videos highlighting the community’s efforts to conserve sea turtles.

In 2017, ESO and stakeholders mobilized a cleanup after the wreck of a cargo vessel left plastic strewn along the nesting beaches. The event became the catalyst for further cleanup operations, resulting in the clearance of an astonishing 38 tons of discarded fishing nets along 34 kilometers (21 miles) of nesting beach. Responding to the source of the problem, ESO has recently launched a new campaign that encourages local fishermen to adopt more sustainable fisheries practices, including responsible storage and disposal of fishing nets as well as continued dedicated net cleanups. The study represents a groundbreaking framework for changing behavior while using community-based social marketing as a tool. And a new campaign has begun to implement low-cost, high-impact solutions among beachside residents to target reduced light use, to shield lights, and to install turtle-friendly lighting along 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of prime nesting habitat.

Extensive collaboration among more than a dozen local, national, and global organizations has allowed this potentially tragic story to evolve into one of hope for Masirah’s sea turtles.