Governor gives grant for sea turtle survey

The Office of the Governor has granted nearly $11,000 to the Department of the Environment for nighttime surveys of nesting female turtles on Cayman beaches.

The grant is the latest disbursement from a £50,000 Overseas Territories Programme Fund supplied to the Cayman Islands and disbursed by the governor among applicants with a worthy social agenda.

“We have our priorities. We give a bit, and hope it can make a difference and that others chip in,” said Tom Hines, staff officer.

Janice Blumenthal, DoE research officer, said the money, $10,800, while modest, “will enable us to do a nighttime-monitoring programme.

We have had a daytime programme since 1998, but never had the resources for a nighttime programme.

“We have a pretty good idea of the population by counting nests, but we have not been able to identify female turtles individually.”

The governor-sponsored programme will enable interns, DoE staffers and volunteers, working in groups of two persons and three persons, to walk the beaches at night, tracking and checking nests, locating females, tagging and counting them.

“It needs a lot of time to look,” Ms Blumenthal says. “Each turtle can dig between one and six nests per season, so in a year, we can count how many nests, but not how many turtles. We have known nest numbers for a few years, but not females.”

The project will also try to determine how many turtles have returned to the area after their release by the Cayman Turtle Farm. The DoE will survey each female, seeking the distinctive Turtle Farm markings.

“Some have flipper tags and others have ‘living’ tags, which are bits of white shell implanted into their carapace,” Ms Blumenthal says.

In April, Ms Blumenthal said that the daytime monitoring, since 1998, had identified only 13 farm-released turtles on local beaches, but that the number was not definitive in the absence of a nighttime counterpart, meaning, she told the Caymanian Compass, “we are currently unable to determine the role of the Cayman Turtle Farm in contributing to the green-turtle nesting increase”.

On Thursday, she said nesting numbers had grown, but so had threats to the population.

“Turtles nest on all three islands, but there are a surprising number on Seven Mile Beach, which is so built up. We have seen an increase in nesting numbers, but the threats have increased too.

“One of our main goals is to patrol, to reduce illegal taking and promote turtle-friendly lighting,” she says.

“It involves walking the beaches, using small groups, an average of two people to four people each night. It’s not a huge team because you don’t want a lot of people walking around at night.”

She acknowledged that $10,800 was only a modest sum, but only needed to cover the night-monitoring programme during the May-November mating season, already half finished.

Since DoE already knows the location of most nests, checking them is a relatively simple task.

Ms Blumenthal estimated that four turtles per year are stolen, but “with such a small population, taking even one can have a real impact.”

Lighting from nearby buildings also posed a significant threat to hatchlings, who instinctively make for nearby bright patches, traditionally the moon and stars over the sea.

“They end up going wrong and become dehydrated. They get hit by cars or are just exhausted,” she said, limiting the numbers that get to the sea. With as many as 100 eggs in each of last year’s 270 nests, Ms Blumenthal says 20,000 hatchlings are “successful”, meaning they gain the water. Artificial lighting can interfere with those rates, however.

DoE manuals prescribe installation of turtle-friendly lighting at beachfront properties, employing motion sensors and concealed locations behind trees and hedges, minimising any distractions.

At the Governor’s Office Mr. Hines said the DoE grant application had been successful because it was “well-written, focused on making an impact and aligned with one of our priorities to preserve the biodiversity in the UK and the Overseas Territories. This project will do just that.”

Other office contributions, he said, had gone to a youth anti-crime programme, the Crisis Centre for education initiatives, the Save Our Youth 
Foundation and to local police for an anti-gang workshop.

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