LLU researcher develops PROTECTOR program
Stephen Dunbar, PhD, assistant professor, department of earth and biological sciences, marks a green turtle for later identification in Roatan.
Larry and Carol Stevenson are simply unique. With the help of their daughter, Ashley, and son-in-law, Barry Kennewell, they own and operate the Reef House Resort on Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras. However, what makes them different from most resort owners is their desire to give back, both to the local community and to the marine environment from which they make their living.
In 2004, after realizing that so many endangered sea turtles were being harvested for consumption from the waters around Roatan, the Stevensons struck a bargain with local fishermen to “reclaim” as many turtles as they could and return them to the inshore waters of the island. The deal was not without cost though, and the family now spends significant funds on the purchase of turtles, a steady supply of food for the animals, and valuable work time in maintaining a protected area for the turtles to be temporarily housed.
It was more than accidental that the Stevensons offered to provide dive support to Dr. Stephen G. Dunbar, PhD, assistant professor, department of earth and biological sciences, LLU and his graduate students, April Sjoboen and Viren Perumal, in October 2005. At that time, Dr. Dunbar and his students were in Honduras conducting rapid assessments of Roatan’s marine life for a project funded by USAID.
“Hurricane Wilma had whipped up the waters around most of the island, but Larry Stevenson kept saying, ‘It’s calm over where we are—why don&rsqu
A view of the proctected pool at the Reef House Resort.
o;t you come dive with us?’” Dr. Dunbar recalls. When negotiating dive costs, Mr. Stevenson said, “Look, I know you’re on a research budget, so just pay what you can afford and that will be fine with us.”
During that trip, Mr. Stevenson asked Dr. Dunbar if he would be interested in doing some work with the turtles he had already collected. “Larry made it very clear that his goal was not to profit from the animals, but to have them studied and released,” says Dr. Dunbar.
Within weeks of returning to LLU from the October research trip, Dr. Dunbar was pulling together the current literature on hawksbill and green sea turtles, only to find a paucity of information on any species of sea turtles from Honduran waters. Dr. Dunbar says, “It was evident that no one was pursuing studies of sea turtles in Honduras to a level that was leading to published information. I thought, ‘I can do that!’” And that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Currently, Dr. Dunbar is developing an umbrella organization called the Protective Turtle Ecology Centre for Training Outreach and Research (PROTECTOR). He aims to eventually coordinate and integrate turtle research efforts in Honduras.
“There are some small projects going on here and there in the country, but they’re not currently working together, nor getting the information out to the scientific and conservation communities,” says Dr. Dunbar. He goes on to say, &
Larry Stevenson, owner of Reef House Resort in Roatan, carries a hawksbill sea turtle to be weighed and measured.
ldquo;What’s needed is a concerted effort for the conservation and protection of marine turtles in the country, and that can only happen if we organize these scattered projects into a united program with clear direction. I’d like to do just that.”
One of the first research projects under the PROTECTOR umbrella is the Turtle Awareness and Protection Studies (TAPS) project. TAPS was initiated in March, 2006 at the Reef House Resort when about 20 hawksbill and four green sea turtles were marked, weighed and measured in anticipation of their future release.
In June of 2006, Dr. Dunbar returned to the Reef House Resort with project co-principal investigator Joe Breman, a marine data modeler from Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), to both re-weigh and re-measure the turtles in an effort to estimate growth rates. Eventually the investigators propose to tag several juveniles with radio transmitters and satellite tags, then track their movements around the Bay Islands and, eventually, on their first long-distance migrations.
“TAPS has been gaining momentum and support,” says Dr. Dunbar.
Dr. Dunbar and Mr. Breman have also begun mapping the turtle’s historic and current distributions, as well as the nesting beaches around the island of Roatan. Dr. Dunbar explains that with so little published information on Honduran sea turtles, one of the first steps is to look at where turtles were once abundant and see how that compares with where they show up now. “Then we can start asking why those differences exist.”
The project team has already begun to prepare proposals for a suite of marine turtle projects that need to be done throughout Honduras. These include tracking nesting females, a nesting beach protection program, turtle egg protection and research, monitoring the health of captive turtles, field monitoring of juvenile home ranges, and being involved with the many conservation education opportunities that are available.
“There’s so much still to do, we’re really just getting started,” Dr. Dunbar emphasized. However, the PROTECTOR projects are off to a good start, and, with the help of project supporters like the Stevensons and ESRI, Dr. Dunbar and colleagues intend to stay at the turtle research in Honduras for the long-term. Increasing understanding and protection of these endangered species is what the research is all about. For the PROTECTOR team, every turtle conserved and released back into the wild is worth all the effort.
For more information about the project, and for a link about turtle adoption, please visit www.llu.edu/llu/grad/natsci/dunbar/taps.html
By Patricia Thio and Stephen Dunbar, PhD