We arrived at Neil’s Harbour on August 30th, well after dark.
Though we couldn’t see the small fishing village on the northeastern end of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, the ferocious pounding of the rocky surf made the Atlantic Ocean’s presence very clear.
After several years of working with sea turtles on sun-soaked, mosquito-rich tropical beaches, a festival commemorating sea turtle conservation efforts between local fishermen and scientists in cold and stormy Nova Scotia was hard for us to conceive.
Nonetheless, there we were; Rod Mast (Director of CI’s Sea Turtle Flagship Program, or STFP), me (Science Advisor to the Sea Turtle Program), and of course, Mr. Leatherback. We had come to help organize and participate in TurtleFest, a weekend celebration of 10 years of sea turtle research off Neil Harbour’s rocky shores.
TurtleFest was organized by the Canadian Sea Turtle Network (CSTN), a group of more than 500 Nova Scotian fishermen who contribute information on leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) presence, behavior, and interactions with fisheries.
Over the years, CSTN, which is led by Dr. Mike James and Executive Director Kathleen Martin, has compiled a great deal of information on leatherback habitat use in Canadian waters that has shed light on both leatherback behavior and distribution.
LEARN MORE: Find out about Leatherbacks, the threats they face and the research that is geared to protect them.
The most important finding has been that nearshore waters – where fishing gear targeting lobsters and crabs is highly prevalent and with which leatherbacks commonly become entangled – are critical foraging habitats for leatherback turtles before they head south to breed and nest in the Caribbean.
Accordingly, CSTN’s work with local fishermen in Canada will have important impacts on leatherback populations throughout the Atlantic Ocean.
A Party with a Cause
TurtleFest opened Friday night with a night of chowder and presentations about the information collected by the network over the years. More than a hundred people from the area attended, asked a lot of questions, and showed their Cape Breton pride. Nova Scotia, they were proud to show, is home not just to snow crabs and moose, but to these Critically Endangered sea turtles as well.
Saturday’s “Turtles by the Sea” festivities featured turtle-centric games and activities, including several local favorites such as "scushying" (where contestants try to run across the water’s surface on floating lids of bait boxes, simulating the old days of fishermen running across ice floes), bait box races (pairs of people paddling across the harbor in precariously floating boxes), and the Nova Scotian equivalent of a soap box derby: a race of homemade boats constructed with only cardboard and duct tape. Any competition that guaranteed someone would fall into the chilly, limb-numbing water was a crowd favorite.
READ MORE: Eggs-tinction? Hueveros, Hawksbills and Bomb Fishing
Mr. Leatherback also made a grand appearance, and was relentlessly sought for photo opportunities. He selected the homemade Hope She Floats as ‘most creative boat;’ unfortunately, Hope failed to finish the actual race.
Mr. Leatherback also perused local kids’ artwork, watched aspiring fisherkids snag metal fish with magnet-fishing lines out of a kiddie pool, admired colorful designs at the face-painting station, and as usual, hugged and danced all around the harbor.
TurtleFest engaged the local community and highlighted the links between healthy turtle habitats and robust fisheries. It was a great success.
Education through Fun
For CI, attending TurtleFest also marked the collaborative work the Sea Turtle Flagship Program is doing with CSTN to study the fine-scale, long-term habitat use of leatherbacks in Nova Scotia, as well as their subsequent migrations southward to warmer climates.
As with all CI’s regional partners, the STFP is supporting solid science that will underpin sound conservation in an area on which turtles rely.
In addition, TurtleFest marked the unofficial launch of the third annual Great Turtle Race – a journey that would end nearly eight months later, and thousands of miles away. Watch for a report from the Caribbean, down the road.
IN DEPTH: Learn more about the Sea Turtle Flagship Program.