Grassroots surveillance effort reveals surprising habitats and populations of Critically Endangered Hawksbill turtles in Eastern Tropical Pacific
Arlington, VA — Once written-off as functionally extinct in
the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, researchers in Central and South America are
lauding the discovery of adult Critically Endangered hawksbill turtles
(Eretmochelys imbricata) living among in-shore mangrove estuaries rather than
the coral and rocky reefs for which they previously known to inhabit. This
never-before-seen habitat adaptation by this population helps explain why the
species went undetected in the region for decades.
The findings were detailed in a report published this month by the
international conservation journal Biology Letters and represent the culmination
of a three-year grassroots effort to track movements of adult female hawksbills
to identify important areas for nesting, migration and feeding in the eastern
Pacific Ocean from the southern U.S. to Peru. The results mark the most complete
set of observations on habitat use by hawksbill turtles in the eastern Pacific
Widely considered among the most endangered sea turtle populations in the
world, little attention had been paid to hawksbill population declines or
habitats in the eastern Pacific since the early 1980s, when scientists concluded
that they had become "rare to non-existent in most localities". Long exploited
for the commercial trade of its elaborately colored shell, the hawksbill turtle
has faced numerous other threats in the region including egg harvest, coastal
habitat destruction, and fisheries bycatch (the accidental capture of non-target
species in fishing gear).
Lead report author Alexander Gaos, a conservation scientist from San Diego
State University, initiated the research to address the lack of information.
Collaborating with individual scientists and organizations throughout the
region, including Conservation International (CI), Gaos and colleagues formed
Iniciativa Carey del Pacifico Oriental (ICAPO). Also known as the Eastern
Pacific Hawksbill Initiative, ICAPO is dedicated to increasing data collection
on the species, prioritizing research sites, identifying urgent threats and
spearheading conservation efforts throughout the region.
Hawksbills were believed to live in the region, but had long evaded detection
by scientists, likely due to their unique life-history strategy of moving into
these mangrove habitats, which is seen nowhere else in the world and made them
extremely difficult to find.
"We were really shocked to see that adult hawksbills weren't even using coral
or rocky reefs or any habitats that were even remotely similar to habitats they
associate with in other parts of the world," Gaos said. This research builds on
a 'rediscovery' of the species in the eastern Pacific based on ICAPO's
region-wide effort to identify key nesting sites and in-water sites for
hawksbills. Observers found nesting beaches for the hawksbills in El Salvador,
Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Ecuador.
"These findings show that conservation of mangrove estuaries and coastal
wetland habitats is important not just for rare species like hawksbills, but
also for the critical ecosystem services these habitats provide," said Dr. Bryan
Wallace, Director of Science for the Marine Flagship Species Program at
Conservation International, and a co-author of the study who helped to compile,
organize, and analyze the reports from throughout the region. Mangrove habitats
not only act as nurseries for juvenile marine animals, many of which are
important food sources for humans, like fish and crabs, but they also serve as
land buffers from storms and natural water filters.
This discovery of the population's reliance on confined mangrove habitats is
both bad news and good news for these hawksbills. The proximity of these
habitats to human communities places the hawksbills under severe threats
throughout the region like the use of deadly explosives for fishing, rampant egg
collection for human consumption and excessive habitat degradation.
Despite the increased threats, this discovery of hawksbills concentrating
their activities in these small estuaries, rather than large swaths of
open-coast or offshore ocean areas like other sea turtles, means targeted
protection efforts focused on these areas can pay big dividends for this
population. These findings also provide a clue as to where researchers may
encounter more hawksbills in the region, improving opportunities for
conservation and recovery of the population.
The success of the ICAPO initiative is owed to its collaborative, grassroots
nature involving participants from more than a dozen institutions, including
governments NGOs, universities, and local communities from Mexico to Peru,
including key support from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center of the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Fish and Wildlife
Foundation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Paso Pacífico and Fauna & Flora
International - Nicaragua, Fundación Zoológica de El Salvador and Equilibrio
Azul in Ecuador. This collective effort and the new information it is generating
are giving hawksbills more than a fighting chance at survival.
"Where some have been found already, many more might be hidden away, still
escaping detection by us," added Gaos. "That tells us that the ICAPO network
needs to continue thinking outside the box and working together to solve these
mysteries, focusing in areas where hawksbills haven't traditionally flourished,
but are surviving anyway."
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by the media
Learn more at: www.conservation.org/seaturtleseptember
To Request a Copy of the Paper or for More Information:
Media Manager, Conservation International
Notes for Editors:
Iniciativa Carey del Pacifico Oriental (ICAPO) is a network
of individuals and organizations from eleven countries, ranging from local
fishermen to conservationists to heads of government, with one thing in common;
a desire to learn about and save hawksbill turtles in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
ICAPO was officially formed in June of 2008 at the "First Workshop of the
Hawksbill Turtle in the Eastern Pacific" held in Los Cóbanos, El Salvador. Visit
www.hawksbill.org for more information.
Conservation International (CI) — Building upon a strong
foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers
societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global
biodiversity, for the long term well-being of people. Founded in 1987, CI has
headquarters in the Washington, DC area, and nearly 900 employees working in
more than 30 countries on four continents, plus 1,000+ partners around the
world. For more information, visit www.conservation.org, and follow us on
Twitter: @ConservationOrg or Facebook: www.facebook.com/conservation.intl