Nesting turtles dwindling

Hurricane Ivan dealt a harsh blow to the nesting turtle population in the Cayman Islands.

The decreasing number of nesting turtles coming to the Cayman Islands was a key aspect to a report given by two Department of Environment representatives at the 25th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation in Savannah, Georgia last month.

DoE staffers Joni Solomon and Janice Blumenthal represented the Cayman Islands at Symposium, which drew about 1,000 attendees from more than 70 different nations.

In Grand Cayman, 54 per cent of the turtle nests with eggs in them at the time of the storm were either washed away or buried under sand.

The number of nests lost in the Sister Islands was even higher, with 60 per cent of all nests destroyed in Little Cayman, and 75 per cent of nests ruined in Cayman Brac.

All together, 37 laid nests were lost in the Cayman Islands as a result of Ivan.

Loggerhead and green turtle nesting levels are critically low in the Cayman Islands, the report said.

Since no hawksbill turtle has nested in Cayman since 1999, it is feared that the entire nesting population has been destroyed.

Turtles nest only once every two to five years, Ms Solomon said. Nesting female turtles normally lay 100-150 eggs per nest, laying three to six nests per year.

However, Ms Solomon said only one in 1,000 eggs will produce a turtle that will survive until adulthood.

Threats to turtles come from a variety of sources, including natural predators like crabs, birds, dogs and fish, the report indicated.

But manmade threats like artificial lighting on the beaches, the alteration of the nesting habitat, and poaching are all combining to make propagation of the turtle species more difficult.

Compounding the situation is the fact that turtle fishing is still legal in the Cayman Islands.

Ms Solomon said that 20 Caymanian fisherman can still legally catch up to six turtles per season, which runs from 1 November to 30 April. Fourteen of the qualified fishermen are still active license-holders.

On average, 10 turtles are legally caught in Cayman each year.

All turtle catches must be reported to a fisheries officer, Ms Solomon said.

Green sea turtles, if they are caught legally in Cayman waters, would be taken at the end of their laying season, which runs from May through October. Ms Solomon said.

However, that is not necessarily the case with loggerhead turtles.

‘Large loggerheads start coming into the waters in April,’ said Ms Solomon, noting that a licensed fisherman could legally catch a turtle returning to nest before it laid a single egg.

Ms Solomon said the DoE has asked the Marine Conservation Board to consider ending the legal turtle season at the beginning of April instead of the end so that turtles returning to nest would not be caught before nesting.