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Caribbean Conservation in Action: Tagging Turtles in the BVI

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

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For centuries, the Japanese artisans have used hawksbill turtle shells to make a variety of trinkets such as eyewear, combs and cigar boxes. By the 1800’s, a fad had spread to the America’s and Europe to obtain hawksbill shells and green turtle soup had become a delicacy around the world. It wasn’t until the late 1970s when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates cross-border trade in wildlife banned the international commercial trade of sea turtles and in 1978, the United States banned the intentional killing of all sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act.

However, In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Japan tried to lift restrictions under CITES to reopen the trade of hawksbill turtle shells with Cuba. Because sea turtles are a regionally shared resource due to their highly migratory range over an individual’s lifetime, many Caribbean countries became concerned that Japan and Cuba’s proposal would undermine some of the long-standing conservation efforts that had already been implemented. This prompted the United Kingdom to launch the Turtles of the UK Overseas Territories (TCOT) project in 2001 to address critical gaps in the knowledge of marine turtle populations found in all their Caribbean territories (Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman, Montserrat and Turks & Caicos Islands).

Although the BVI was already monitoring nesting leatherback sea turtles, this 3-year UK-funded project brought a new dimension to turtle monitoring to the BVI and other UK Territories. In-water turtle tagging of foraging populations commenced which identified healthy populations of juvenile to sub-adult (teenage) green and hawksbill turtles in the BVI. Through genetic sampling of those turtles tagged, green turtles were identified as coming from as far away as Ascension Island, Venezuela and Costa Rica with hawksbills coming from Brazil, Barbados, and Cuba. Subsequently, some of the tagged turtles have migrated from the BVI on to their adult foraging grounds and travelled as far as Nicaragua, Bonaire and Guadeloupe.

Although the TCOT project ended many years ago, in-water turtle tagging of foraging populations continued over the years. Now, with an extensive baseline of information and a growing need for changes in local sea turtle management, the BVI was awarded a Darwin Plus grant worth over US$300k from the UK’s Overseas Territories Environment & Climate Fund in June 2020. This newly implemented STEEL Project (Sustainable turtles, environments, economies & livelihoods) is aimed to ramp up tagging efforts to better understand changes in the status of BVI turtles based on nearly 20 years of data collected. Additionally, foraging turtle habitats will be assessed on how to build resiliency in areas that were impacted by the 2017 hurricane events. An educational programme to provide the community with a better local understanding of turtle conservation will be implemented and, using the MCS Community Voice Method (CVM) of engagement, the project will engage BVI communities to develop new legislation recommendations and a conservation action plan to safeguard BVI’s turtle populations for future generations.

The STEEL Project is being led by the Marine Conservation Society UK alongside local organisation, the Association of Reef Keepers (ARK) and partnerships with the BVI Government’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Ministry of Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration. Additionally, local dive and tour operators such as Sail Caribbean Divers are participating in the project by providing boats and assisting local turtle scientists in capturing, tagging and releasing of sea turtles.

For more information see www.bviark.org

Nick and Caroline (Frogfish Photography) are a married couple of conservation driven underwater photo-journalists and authors. Both have honours degrees from Manchester University, in Environmental Biology and Biology respectively, with Nick being a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, a former high school science teacher with a DipEd in Teaching Studies. Caroline has an MSc in Animal Behaviour specializing in Caribbean Ecology. They are multiple award-winning photographers and along with 4 published books, feature regularly in the diving, wildlife and international press They are the Underwater Photography and Deputy Editors at Scubaverse and Dive Travel Adventures. Winners of the Caribbean Tourism Organization Photo-journalist of the Year for a feature on Shark Diving in The Bahamas, and they have been placed in every year they have entered. Nick and Caroline regularly use their free time to visit schools, both in the UK and on their travels, to discuss the important issues of marine conservation, sharks and plastic pollution. They are ambassadors for Sharks4Kids and founders of SeaStraw. They are Dive Ambassadors for The Islands of The Bahamas and they are supported by Mares, Paralenz, Nauticam and Olympus. To find out more visit www.frogfishphotography.com

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Ground-breaking Shark Research conducted in St. Maarten waters

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

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In April 2021 members from the Nature Foundation St. Maarten, the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA), the Saba Conservation Foundation (SCF), and Beneath the Waves conducted multiple ‘scientific firsts’ as part of the “Shark Shakedown” project. The research expedition was a part of a wider research project into tiger sharks in the region funded by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-NL) through the Biodiversity Funds and the Dutch National Postcode Lottery. The researchers tagged eleven sharks, including for the first time a female pregnant tiger and endangered Caribbean reef shark in the Dutch Caribbean. The data will provide vital information for conservation strategies not only in St. Maarten, but for the wider Caribbean.

The expedition lasted five days in which three species of sharks were tagged, including tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier), Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezi), and nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) all ranging from sub-adults to adults.

Participants received hands-on training with experts from Beneath the Waves in preparation for the upcoming expedition to the Saba Bank in August 2021. The goal of this upcoming expedition is to determine whether the Saba Bank is a breeding area for tiger sharks in the Eastern Caribbean. The high-definition ultrasound technology the team used was created by E. I. Medical Imaging and pioneered by collaborator Dr. James Sulikowski, of Arizona State University. This technology has successfully been used to identify maturity state and the stage of pregnancy in various shark species, a first for shark science in the region.

The scientists successfully confirmed early pregnancy stage in a large female tiger shark, as well as placed a satellite tag on the shark during the workup process. Using satellite tracking over the next few months, the scientists hope to confirm evidence of Sint Maarten being a breeding location for these globally threatened animals. In another shark tagging ‘first’, Beneath the Waves’ Chief Scientist, Dr. Austin Gallagher, placed the first camera tag on a tiger shark in the Dutch Caribbean. The team successfully recovered the camera package during the expedition, and the animal has already shown promising results regarding shark behavior in the region.

Both the satellite tag and camera tag have shown that these tiger sharks prefer to travel in the area between St. Maarten and St. Barths; however, these are only the first detections. No assumptions can be made yet regarding the movement of these animals.

The information gained from this research will provide a better understanding of the importance of both the status of sharks in Sint Maarten’s territorial waters and in the Yarari Sanctuary and the role these ecosystems play in the life-cycle of tiger sharks in the wider Caribbean region. Tiger sharks are currently categorized as Near-Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature while Caribbean reef sharks have very recently been upgraded to Endangered. Sharks play key roles in maintaining the balance within local and regional marine ecosystems and maintaining biodiversity and therefore their protection is crucial.

Follow the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance’s Facebook, Instagram (dcnanature) or DCNA’s website (https://dcnanature.org/news/) to learn more about the shark expedition and other nature news from the Dutch Caribbean.

Photo credit:  ©  Sami Kattan/Beneath the Waves (all rights reserved)

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Book your Autumn 2021 Bonaire getaway with Ultimate Diving

Caribbean DTA Team

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Ultimate Diving has been busy working on some fantastic itineraries to the beautiful Bonaire so you can start planning for a fantastic diving adventure. Bonaire is one of the few Caribbean destinations where you can dive 365 days of the year! Therefore, it is no surprise that it is a popular destination for divers. Experience its pristine underwater environment thriving with vibrant tones and encrusting corals on every rock and wreck and you will not be disappointed!

Ultimate Diving have a fantastic early booking offer for Captain Don’s Habitat. The resort was founded in 1976 by the renowned underwater legend Captain Don Stewart who was at the forefront of environmentally sound developments on the island of Bonaire for many years. The pristine house reef accessible from the beach is awash with colourful parrotfish, angel fish, feisty sergeant majors, butterfly fish, scrawled file fish, grunt, gobies and groupers.

Special Offer: Book 7 nights from £1885 – Price includes flights from London, transfers, 7 nights accommodation and 10 dives per person. Single supplements apply and regional departures available on request.

To enquire or book, just give the Ultimate Diving team a call on 0208 655 6458 and they can answer any questions you may have and give you the lowdown on the destination and diving.

For more, visit www.ultimatediving.co.uk.

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