School of Science & Technology professor saves endangered sea turtles
Stephen Dunbar, PhD, observes a recently released, radio-tagged hawksbill as part of the TAPS program. You can support the program by adopting a sea turtle for $50. To learn more, visit <www.turtleprotector.org>.
On June 17, a team of marine scientists returned to the Bay Islands of Honduras to continue studies of one of the ocean’s best-loved representatives.
Stephen G. Dunbar, PhD, professor of biology, SST, heads the team that is based at the Reef House Resort in Oak Ridge, Roatan, where they are monitoring and tracking sea turtles until mid-September. Dr. Dunbar is accompanied by first-year graduate student Melissa Berube.
Known locally as “Señor Tortuga,” Dr. Dunbar has been working with Larry and Carol Stevenson, and Barry and Ashley Kennewell, owners of the Reef House Resort, since November 2005 to establish a turtle conservation program on the island. As a result of their efforts, the group, along with marine data modeler Joe Breman and LLU nursing professor Sabine Dunbar, has developed the Protective Turtle Ecology Center for Training, Outreach and Research, Inc. (ProTECTOR), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study and conservation of marine turtles in Honduras.
As president of ProTECTOR, Dr. Dunbar says, “We know almost nothing about the sea turtles of Honduras, despite the fact that the Bay Islands have historically been a major nesting site for critically endangered hawksbills, and an area of where green sea turtles were once very abundant.”
Some sources estimate that populations of hawksbills throughout the Caribbean have declined from over 11 million to less than 30,000 individuals. “There are so many threats to their s
An identified, re-released hawksbill surveys the local habitat along the coast of Roatan.
urvival; if we don’t work quickly and don’t get help from local communities, we could see this important and beautiful species disappear in the very near future! That’s why we’ve started the Turtle Awareness and Protections Studies (TAPS) in the Bay Islands,” Dr. Dunbar states.
Threats include marine pollution, entanglement in nets, and the loss of nesting beach habitat. “But, some of the biggest threats,” explains Dr. Dunbar, “are the taking of turtles from their local feeding grounds, and the taking of eggs and females during the nesting season. These activities really devastate the population.”
The research team has recently received funding from a division of Conservation International to establish a series of workshops. “One of our major goals is to work with local fishermen on Roatan to discuss and develop ways for them to become involved in the benefits of sea turtle conservation. We believe that there really can be a ‘win-win’ situation for local communities and the turtles,” says Dr. Dunbar.
During this expedition, Dr. Dunbar and Ms. Berube are attaching radio transmitters to 10 juvenile turtles and tracking them each day. In addition to gathering data on where these young turtles are spending their first several years of life, the team is also collecting information on the turtles’ diets and what other organisms are regularly living on or with the turtles as they go about their daily activities. As well, the team plans to confirm and begin mapping beaches where turtles are coming to nest. Dr. Dunbar declared, “We’re very excited to be working with three groups from the U.K. through an organization called ‘Outlook Expeditions.’”
According to Outlook Expeditions’ logistics coordinator, Edward Stones, “These are volunteer groups of 10 to 12 young people looking for opportunities to contribute to sea turtle conservation efforts and the good of local communities on the island.”
Under the direction of the research team, the Outlook groups will monitor specific beaches each night watching for nesting turtles. The groups will assist the team by collecting turtle measurements, position of nests and number of eggs laid. All of this will help the research team begin to assess the number of nesting females and the success rate of hatching turtles.
According to Dr. Dunbar, it’s a rare opportunity to be studying such critical species in an area where almost everything they do with the turtles will provide new information. “We’re already working with local resource managers, such as Ms. Lydia Salinas, the Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA), and others, to ensure that our research and conservation efforts in Honduras will continue in the future. We hope that the turtles and ProTECTOR will be there for a long time to come.”
You can learn more about ProTECTOR by visiting the web at www.turtleprotector.org
By Patricia Thio and Stephen Dunbar, PhD