Wednesday, May 11, 2022

International project aims to understand and protect endangered sea turtles

A hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
Credit: Kate Charles, Ocean Spirits Inc

A partnership of organizations and universities in the UK and Grenada has launched a new project looking into the challenges and threats facing two endangered marine species.

Marine conservationists in the two countries will be working to understand more about hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) and green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas).

This will include using a variety of field techniques to fully appreciate their behaviors and habitats, and ultimately, the partners hope to develop a series of measures that can be used to support the sustainable conservation of the species now and in the future.

The research is being funded by the Oscar Montgomery Environmental Foundation (OMEF), a charity launched in 2020 as a legacy to a young man who was passionate about the marine environment.

He died, aged just 17, and the charity set up in his memory aims to support, advocate and raise awareness of environmental issues, largely marine, and support projects and research which work to conserve and enhance the global environment.

This project is particularly poignant, with Oscar having visited Grenada and the turtles with his family.

It will be managed collaboratively by the University of Plymouth (UK), St George’s University, School of Veterinary Medicine (Grenada, West Indies), and Grenada-based marine conservation NGO Ocean Spirits Inc.

Hannah Limberger, Founder and Secretary of the Oscar Montgomery Environmental Foundation, said:

“We are honored to be supporting a project crucial for the future of critically endangered hawksbill turtles and endangered green turtles. Working with Ocean Spirits Inc and St Georges University in Grenada is something extremely close to our hearts here at OMEF, making this relationship particularly special and a perfect project for us to support. Creating lasting positive change is imperative and projects such as this are a step towards that change. We are equally thrilled to be funding Naomi Westlake in her ResM, our first student funding, as supporting young people who are passionate about environmental conservation is truly special and so important to our future. We are excited to see the outcome of this work and as we grow as a charity, we look forward to building relationships and supporting more young people on their environmental journeys.”

“It is with great pride that we have collaborated with the Oscar Montgomery Environmental Foundation, St George’s University and Ocean Spirits Inc.

"Our partnership will provide fantastic opportunities for young people like Naomi who are passionate about marine conservation, and build on our undergraduate and masters programs in this area. This initiative will also create a partnership that can deliver important research evidence that will hopefully influence government decisions in Grenada and make a difference to the conservation of turtle populations. It will also re-establish a long-term relationship between Plymouth and St George’s universities in the marine biology area.”

The 18-month project will see ResM student Naomi Westlake – who graduated from Plymouth’s BSc (Hons) Marine Biology program in 2021 – working closely with leading researchers in the UK and Grenada.

Through a combination of complementary research techniques, the team will look to identify the origin and migration corridors of Grenada’s critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles and endangered green sea turtles.

This will include carrying out DNA analyses and using satellite tags to track the movement of individual turtles, as well as monitoring nesting females.

Naomi will then work to translate and communicate this data so it can be used to inform national and regional conservation policies, while also working on other sea turtle research projects in the Caribbean.

The importance of studying sea turtles

Sea turtles are an important species in the West Indies as the health of the ocean requires healthy sea turtles. They are a keystone species which means that as sea turtle numbers decline, it reduces the biodiversity and overall health of the environment.

Sea turtles have played a role in maintaining seagrass beds and coral reefs by balancing marine food webs and nutrient cycling for over 100 million years. Protecting these species is a vital step in ensuring oceans remain sustainable for the future.

In addition to their ecological significance, sea turtles also represent an important component of ecotourism in Grenada and they symbolize a sense of cultural identity and pride for the region.

Professor of Aquatic Animal Medicine Dave Marancik, from St George’s University School of Veterinary Medicine said:

“This project is extremely valuable in expanding our efforts here in Grenada to characterize the health and status of endangered green turtles and critically endangered hawksbill turtles. As sea turtles migrate enormous distances throughout the world’s oceans, the impact of this study can potentially reach far beyond Grenada’s borders. This collaboration brings together expertise and resources from many different people who all have the common goal of supporting wildlife conservation and ensuring Grenada’s sustainability for generations to come.”

Kate Charles, Marine Biologist and Project Coordinator, from Ocean Spirits Inc, added:

“Grenada has the longest open legal hunting season in the Caribbean region, allowing critically endangered and endangered sea turtle species to be harvested over 25lb. As our surrounding islands provide legislation to protect their sea turtles all year round, these are transboundary animals that migrate between the islands in search of nesting and foraging grounds. The 2022 OMEF-funded project will provide us with the necessary data to highlight that sea turtles are a shared resource and therefore all islands should work to protect them.”

An amazing opportunity to influence marine conservation in action

Naomi Westlake Credit: University of Plymouth

Naomi Westlake has been passionate about the world beneath the ocean surface since she first went scuba diving at the age of 14. Since then, she has been to some of the world’s most important marine environments and carried out research into iconic species of ocean life.

This new ResM project will see her spending time in both the UK and Grenada, carrying out research in the field and lab and meeting organizations and people who encounter the endangered turtle species on a daily basis.

She is currently reviewing the existing literature surrounding turtle genetics, as well as familiarizing herself with new techniques, such as genomic characterization, before spending 12 weeks in Grenada this summer.

She said:
“This project is a really special collaboration, and I am already enjoying working with all the partners in the UK and Grenada. I will be adding both transferable knowledge and new techniques to my existing skillset, and I am so grateful to be able to explore another stunning part of our world’s oceans. In addition to this, this project is giving me the opportunity to make a genuine difference, both to the conservation of endangered marine species and, ultimately, to the lives of the people who depend on them.”

Source/Credit: University of Plymouth | Alan Williams

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