~ World Turtle Day May 23rd 2006 ~
Oxford. 23 May 2006. Earthwatch scientists working on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands are celebrating a ten-fold increase in nesting leatherback turtles and a 20-fold increase in hatchlings produced. The news is welcomed after 25 years of conservation and monitoring efforts.
Earthwatch scientist Dr. Peter Dutton from the U.S National Marine Fisheries Service, has reported a marked rise from less than 18-30 nesting females in the early 1980's to 186 in 2001, as well as an increase in annual hatchling production from 2,000 to more than 49,000, in a paper published recently with colleagues in the journal Biological Conservation.
"These data reveal a link between beach conservation and an increase in the species," explains Dutton. "Although leatherback turtles are at serious risk of global extinction, the rise of nesting populations in St. Croix holds promise for other nesting populations around the world."
Leatherback turtle populations have declined in recent decades due to a combination of over-harvest of eggs on nesting beaches, and destructive fishing practices. Eastern Pacific leatherback populations have virtually collapsed, and at present show little signs of recovery. Earthwatch scientists working with leatherbacks on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica report that more than 120 turtles came to nest there this season, nearly twice last season's count, but still a 90 percent drop from two decades ago.
In St. Croix, Earthwatch volunteers and field staff patrol the nesting beaches every night of the season so that nests below the high water mark can be relocated to a safe hatchery and all leatherback females can be tagged with a miniature microchip (Passive Integrated Transponder).
"The teams systematically identify each nesting turtle, count its eggs, and move nests at risk from erosion," explains Dr Roger Mitchell, Earthwatch Chief Scientist. "In the past two decades, they have helped to eliminate poaching and recover this once-depleted population. These results demonstrate that long-term consistent efforts are effective and simple actions can make all the difference."
"It is essential that we continue to do all we can to increase hatchling production if we are to safeguard the species," concludes Dr. Dutton. "The St. Croix story is one of hope, as we struggle to prevent the extinction of leatherback populations in the Pacific."
For more information, images and interviews contact Zoe Gamble, Earthwatch Senior Press Officer on 01865 318852 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Members of the public interested in working in St Croix or donating to the project should contact Earthwatch on 01865 318831 or visit http://www.earthwatch.org/.