A dramatic recovery in Cayman’s nesting sea turtle population, from the brink of extinction at the turn of the century, is demonstrated in two decades of data collected by environment officials on Cayman beaches.
When the Department of Environment began its monitoring program in Grand Cayman in 1999, volunteers counted just 30 nests, suggesting just a few turtles in the nesting population.
At the conclusion of the 2015 nesting season this week, a record 437 nests had been counted across all three islands.
Over the years the Department of Environment’s monitoring efforts have become more comprehensive. During 2015, more than 70 volunteers and department staff walked some 1,400 miles, patrolling the beaches night after night.
But the department says its methods have remained consistent and it is confident that the numbers reflect a true increase in the nesting population.
“These are very encouraging numbers,” said DoE Research Officer Janice Blumenthal. “However, it is important to remember that each turtle lays several nests each season, so the number of females in our nesting population is still very small.
“It is also important to remember that turtles currently nesting on our beaches hatched 20, 30 and 40 years ago when conditions were very different. Our nesting populations could become extinct if baby turtles hatching today do not survive.”
Changes in fishery legislation to prevent turtles from being harvested and better protection of nesting beaches have been cited as reasons for the improvement.
Another important factor is the Cayman Turtle Farm. The DoE has seen green turtles that were released from the farm in the 1980s coming back to nest on Cayman’s beaches.
Interns working with the Darwin Initiative-funded research program have been tagging nesting turtles and taking DNA samples this summer, in part to assess the extent of the farm’s contribution to wild turtle nesting populations.
During surveys this year, volunteers counted 242 nests in Grand Cayman, 34 nests in Cayman Brac, and 161 nests in Little Cayman.
The Little Cayman figure compares with just 15 nests in 1998, when the first comprehensive monitoring program took place.
Despite the positive news, the DoE says turtle populations are still precarious. The 2015 nesting season was not without incident.
On at least two occasions, enforcement officers say, poaching incidents were discovered.
And in September, volunteers discovered the charred remains of dozens of tiny hatchlings that had become disorientated and stumbled into the still-burning embers of a beach bonfire in South Sound.
Ms. Blumenthal said monitoring, enforcement and a sensible approach to development would help preserve nesting turtle populations in the future.