Very excited to announce a new Sacred Warrior partnership with SEE Turtles. We have a retreat coming up next year in Nicaragua, during which we’ll work with the critically endangered, Hawksbill Sea Turtles. In this interview, I talk to SEE Turtle founder, Brad Nahill about the challenges sea turtles face, their essential role in the ecosystem and what we can do to help.
What inspired you to become involved with Sea Turtle conservation?
I didn’t grow up loving turtles or dreaming of working with them; it was almost by accident. I decided in college that I wanted to do something to protect the environment and wildlife and figured Latin America would be a fun place to get some experience. When I went online to find volunteer opportunities in the region, most of the opportunities were in Costa Rica and most of those were with sea turtle projects. Since those projects didn’t require a background in biology (I was an economics major), I picked one of those on a whim. It wasn’t until I was there on the beach looking at an 8 foot long, 800 lb turtle that I really fell in love with these animals and decided to make working with them my career.
What is their role in the ecosystem? In the oceans?
Sea turtles are critical to healthy oceans for a number of reasons. They are top predators and help control the numbers of things like jellyfish and sponges which can impact ecosystems if their populations grow too quickly. Their nests are an important source of nutrients for beaches and their eggs and hatchlings are a source of food for dozens of species of animals.
We’ll be working with the Hawksbill Sea Turtle during our retreat in Nicaragua. Tell us a bit about the Hawksbill.
Hawksbills are one of the most endangered of sea turtles (considered “critically endangered” by the IUCN) and the population that lives along the Pacific coast of the America’s is even more endangered, with an estimated less than 1,000 adult females. They are known as spongivores because sponges are their favorite food, which can damage coral reefs. Everywhere else in the world, hawksbills live in coral reefs but this population is an exception; in Nicaragua they live primarily in mangroves like Padre Ramos, though it’s not clear why. One thing that makes hawksbills unique is their beautiful shell, though that beauty is also a reason they are so endangered. They are sought after for their shells, which are made into jewelry and other trinkets (sometimes incorrectly called “tortoiseshell”).
We’ll be there during nesting season and some of what we’ll be doing to help is beach patrol. Will you elaborate on why we’re doing this and talk about the challenges this particular turtle faces?
Beach patrols are a key way to protect sea turtles because, even though it’s illegal, their eggs are often collected and sold on the black market. There is a persistent (though scientifically inaccurate) belief that turtle eggs are an aphrodisiac and poachers can make $50 or more for one nest. By having people walking the beaches, the poachers stay away and the eggs can be collected and safely transported to a hatchery, where they are reburied and watched until they hatch.
The conservation work at Padre Ramos is unique in that local residents who used to collect the eggs to consume or sell now bring them to the local organization (Fauna & Flora Nicaragua) and are paid per egg that they bring. These locals will patrol the small hidden beaches around the estuary where volunteers can’t reach by foot. The volunteers are important to cover the most important nesting beach that is within walking distance from the station.
Would you describe some of the other work people will be engaged in during our retreat?
In addition to walking the nesting beaches, volunteers will participate in an in-water research project, where juvenile hawksbills are caught in nets and studied and released. If any hatchlings emerge, the group will be able to help collect data on them and then release them to the ocean. In addition, the group will participate in volunteer activities to help the turtles, including a beach clean-up to get plastic waste off the beach, as well as a mangrove reforestation program where people will plant mangrove seedlings.
Since creating SEE Turtles and Billion Baby Turtles are you seeing a difference? A comeback, so to speak?
Sea turtle conservation is by its nature long-term. It takes at least 15 years (and sometimes up to 30 years) before hatchlings start returning to nest, so we won’t know the full impact of what we are doing now for a long time. But in general, researchers are starting to see the results of nesting beach programs that have been around for decades and in many places, numbers are increasing, so we know this method works. Two species have recently been upgraded (leatherbacks and loggerheads) due to the hard work of turtle conservationists around the world over the past 30 or so years, so I’m very hopeful about the future for these animals
Are there simple lifestyle changes can we make to lessen our impact?
Absolutely! The biggest lifestyle change that can help sea turtles (and all ocean life), is to reduce the amount of plastic that people use. Simple things like reusable shopping bags and water bottles can really eliminate the need for a lot of plastic. You can also purchase more environmentally-friendly seafood (if you eat fish) by looking for certified kinds of seafood and avoiding things like shrimp where turtles and other animals are also caught. Also, anything that reduces your carbon footprint helps turtles. Global warming is eroding nesting beaches, bleaching coral reefs, and increasing the temperature of the sand, so using less energy (or renewable forms of energy) is another great way to help all wildlife.
Are there other ways people can take actions now?
For more about the Sacred Warrior Sea Turtle retreat, July ’17 click HERE
About See Turtle Co-Founder and Director, Brad Nahill:
Brad has worked in sea turtle conservation, ecotourism, and environmental education for 15 years with organizations including Ocean Conservancy, Rare, Asociacion ANAI (Costa Rica), and the Academy of Natural Sciences (Philadelphia). He has also consulted for several ecotourism companies and non-profits, including EcoTeach and Costa Rican Adventures. Brad is a co-author of the Worldwide Travel Guide to Sea Turtles, chair of the Awards Committee of the International Sea Turtle Society, and has authored several book chapters, blogs, and abstracts on turtle conservation and ecotourism, and has presented at major travel conferences and sea turtle symposia. Brad has a BS in Environmental Economics from Penn State University and taught a class on ecotourism at Mount Hood Community College.