To promote the conservation of the sea turtle population

To promote the conservation of the sea turtle population

To promote the conservation of the sea turtle population

Tortue tuée par un engin nautique
Tortue tuée par un engin nautique

Eight sea turtles killed in 2019

Eight sea turtles died in 2019 due to collisions with a boat or a jet ski. And four others were found stranded on the shore since the beginning of 2020. These numbers concern only those turtles found on the shore and brought to the attention of the Réserve Naturelle. How many others may have been victims of such collisions at sea that went unnoticed? It is important to note that it takes 25 years for a sea turtle to reproduce and that only one in a thousand actually reaches that age. Sadly, these accidents impact mature sea turtles as well as juveniles that have not yet had the chance to reproduce. And a large number of sea turtles found on our shores show traces of fibropapillomatosis, a disease found more and more frequently in the island’s sea turtle population.

Une tortue verte sur l’herbier de Tintamare A green sea turtle feeding on sea grass at Tintamare
Une tortue verte sur l’herbier de Tintamare A green sea turtle feeding on sea grass at Tintamare

Green sea turtles VS humans

Do green sea turtles modify their nutritional habits in sea grass beds in the presence of humans? Or not? The first phase of a two-part study took place November 10-22, in low tourist season, and was continued in high season, between Christmas and New Year. The goal is to characterize the interactions between green sea turtles and humans, specifically at the sea grass beds at Anse Marcel and Baie Blanche in Tintamare. Benjamin de Montgolfier, director of the maritime consulting firm, AquaSearch, led the project with funding made possible by the French Office For Biodiversity (OFB). The results of this study will contribute to the establishment of best practices for turtle watching, working hand-in-hand with professional and amateur boaters.

Rencontre sur le site du chantier - Meeting at the site
Rencontre sur le site du chantier - Meeting at the site

Limit the impact of work on the beaches

An architectural firm doing work to protect a villa from storm surge requested that the Réserve Naturelle to provide advice on the site along the coast at Baie Rouge, a site favored by sea turtles during egg-laying season. After getting the obligatory administrative authorization, the architect responsible for the project—a wall comprised of steel pilings deeply driven into the sand—decided to seek professional advice to limit try and best minimize the impact on one of the most sensitive sites, and just at the beginning of the 2020 egg-laying season. On January 21, Julien Chalifour and Aude Bergé met with the architects and the construction company to raise their awareness about the protection and reproduction habits of sea turtles. Pointing out that the solution with the least impact would be not to put up a wall, but to rely on natural barriers, the participants discussed various technical solutions in order to define a protocol intended to limit the impact to the site and to its future use for egg-laying. The work should have been completed before the start of egg-laying season in May, but was unfortunately delayed by the consequences of Covid-19.

The important points as outlined in the protocol include:

  • Heavy machinery should limit their maneuvers on the site as much as possible;
  • Storage of dirt and construction materials will be limited in the egg-laying zone;
  • An awareness campaign for workers, including signage with rules to be respected;
  • A daily control procedure to verify the absence of sea turtles or traces of egg laying around the work site;
  • In the case of sighting a turtle or egg-laying traces, the Réserve Naturelle will be informed immediately;
  • Lighting intended to illuminate the beach will be avoided;
  • The Réserve encourages the planting of vegetation on the beach in front of the project. In addition to limiting erosion of the sand and being more aesthetic, this zone of vegetation will help encourage hawksbill turtles, as they like to lay their eggs in a spot with plants at the high edge of the beach.
Tortue imbriquée - Hawksbill turtle © Julien Chalifour
Tortue imbriquée - Hawksbill turtle © Julien Chalifour

Updating the Atlas of sea turtle egg-laying sites

Fifteen years ago, in 2005, the Réserve Naturelle created an Atlas of sites in Saint Martin where sea turtles lay their eggs. Regularly updated, this document required a major overhaul post hurricane Irma. The job was entrusted to Manon Gomez y Gimenez, a master’s degree candidate in ecology at the University of Montpellier, and an intern at the Réserve from March through August 2020. She will evaluate the overall state of each beach where turtles traditionally lay their eggs: the surface of the sand; a description of the natural vegetation; and also various factors of deterioration, from construction to visual sources of disturbance and too much noise. She will pay special attention to light pollution, for which regulations have evolved as recently as January 2020 in an attempt to protect the flora and fauna from intrusive lighting that disturbs natural habitats. These measures apply to all construction, public and private, except where nocturnal lighting is necessary, such as ports and marinas. The negative and positive points of each site will be included in the Atlas, with individual notations: tamping of the sand, local or imported vegetation, narrowness or wideness of the beach. Finally, it will be possible to evaluate with exactitude the conditions awaiting the turtles on the beaches, and their evolution over time. The idea is to define the priorities that must be established for the protection of sea turtles.

Protection du nid par ruban de sécurité Protection of a nest with security tape
Protection du nid par ruban de sécurité Protection of a nest with security tape

Turtles Alone On The Beaches

The beaches were closed while the island was in confinement, which means the volunteer team created by the Réserve Naturelle was not able to monitor the egg-laying activities of sea turtles between March 17th and May 11st. However, witnesses have reported five traces typical of leatherback turtles on the beach in Orient Bay, which has been the most popular egg-laying spot as of March 1st. The nests have been protected with the help of security tape, and the good news about being confined means that tranquility is guaranteed for the nest and the hatching, which in theory maximizes the chances of success. The Réserve noted three egg-laying instances at 11-day intervals, and it is most likely the same leatherback turtle, as they have a tendency to lay their eggs several times in the same place about every eleven days.

The Réserve Naturelle has put out a call for eco-volunteers to participate in the scientific study of sea turtles. These volunteers can help out once a week, or even just once per month, according to their availability, and the Réserve will provide training. The contact person is Aude Bergé, who runs the project, “Take Action For The Sea Turtles Of Saint Martin.” She can be reached at reservenat.aude@yahoo.com.
Une tortue luth - A leatherback turtle
Rencontre avec les bénévoles

The volunteers of the sea turtle network regularly accomplish their solitary mission, which consists of finding the tracks of turtles that come to lay eggs on the beaches, and noting signs of their nesting. In order to meet them and introduce them to the activities of the Réserve, as well as help them improve their finding of the tracks, Aude Berger from the Réserve’s scientific department, invited the volunteers to Tintamare, on the beach in Bay Blanche and the lagoon. Twice a week, in August and September, one or two of these volunteers took part and appreciated this special experience, in a great natural setting in the presence of our scientific experts.

Fifteen volunteers from the sea turtle network participated in the night of observation of turtles at Long Bay in Terres Basses on September 13. From sunset until 10:30pm, they all waited under the full moon in vain for even one turtle to come out of the water and lay its eggs.
Une tortue prise au piège
Une tortue prise au piège

Other than the fact that buildings along the edge of the beach stops the development of vegetation to help prevent erosion along the shore, which leads to smaller beaches, construction also represents an obstacle for sea turtles to lay their eggs. On September 15, on a contruction site for a wall between a villa and the beach in Baie Rouge, workers rescued a turtle that had fallen into a deep trench dug for the foundation of the wall. Surveillance cameras caught the event on video and one can see the trapped turtle unable to get out of the trench on its own. Then the video shows the men helping extricate it—with diffuculty— and send it back to the beach. The Réserve Naturelle took advantage of this mishap to point out that sea turtles, as well as their essential habitats essentiels (zones for feeding and reproduction) are protected on a national basis, with the goal of preserving these populations threatened by mankind. These species and their habitats are part of our common heritage and play a role in the economic activity of our island.

Réunion des écovolontaires - Meeting of eco-volunteers
Réunion des écovolontaires - Meeting of eco-volunteers

A group of eco-volunteers turned out in big numbers this year, with no less than 50 people regularly patrolling the beaches in order to find tracks left by the marine turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs. By mid-June, three observations had been noted. A first informational meeting was held on April 19 at L’Etage restaurant in Hope Estate, and a second on June 21 at the Réserve. For Julien Chalifour, director of the Réserve’s scientific division, the return of these activities, in spite of the scars left by Irma, as well as the recent invasion of Sargasso seaweed, is very encouraging, but he points out the importance of maintaining the quality and tranquility of the areas around the sites where the eggs are laid.

Tortue tuée par un engin nautique
Tortue tuée par un engin nautique

Seven marine turtles have died since January 1, the majority of which were involved in a collision with a boat or a jet ski. And that number only concerns those turtles found on the shore and reported to the Réserve Naturelle. How many others have been victims of a collision at sea that went unnoticed? It takes 25 years for these turtles to be able to reproduce, and only one in a thousand actually reach that age. Sadly these accidents involve mature turtles as well as juveniles that have not yet had the chance to reproduce.

Trace d’une tortue venue pondre – Traces of a turtle to lay its eggs
Trace d’une tortue venue pondre – Traces of a turtle to lay its eggs

In spite of the fact that it was a busy year in terms of reconstruction, the egg-laying season for sea turtles was observed as usual from March through November 2018. The team of eco-volunteers that covers the beaches in the hope of seeing traces of a turtle come to lay its eggs was reduced to 30 people in 2018. By early June, no traces had been seen but it was not call for alarm. In fact, at the time of this report, no fewer than 104 traces had been reported after 288 patrols were done. That does not mean that the turtles were less present on our beached in 2018. However it seems wise to take extra care of these turtles, in context of the fact that a majority of the eggs laid in 2017 were destroyed by hurricane Irma, and certain building sites currently impact egg-laying areas. The reconstruction of Saint Martin should take into consideration the restoration of these egg-laying sites.

Julien Chalifour, who runs the turtle network in Saint Martin, also took part in the 3rd colloquium of the Sea Turtle Group of France, at the La Rochelle Aquarium on November 12-16 2018. Approximately 100 experts from France, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Indian Ocean shared respective experiences in terms of conservation and the study of sea turtles, as well as their washing up on shore. This meeting has been for Julien Chalifour an opportunity to discuss ideas on subjects of interest to Saint Martin, notably the absence of treatment center for turtles that are sick or in distress, as compared to Reunion Island or Polynesia, where there are consequent structures that are financially independent. Another problem is that of turtle watching during underwater excursions, which can bother these protected reptiles and eventually cause them to flee, as well as cause an outbreak of diseases.

Did you know that leatherback turtles, as well as certain green turtles and hawksbill turtles, swim around the Atlantic Ocean, by following the currents. Their speed can reach as high as 35 km/hour. These long-distance travelers can cover thousands of kilometers in their lifetime, in order to get back to their reproduction zone, which can be far from their feeding zones.

On January 25, the Réserve Naturelle was questioned by the gendarmerie, which required its expertise in the context of several ongoing issues that involve work on certain beaches, in particular in the Lowlands, in order to estimate the damage that this work could cause to egg-laying sites for sea turtles. In fact, the reconstruction of the island post-Irma often encouraged owners of land along the beach to build walls along the shoreline, without realizing they were causing a problem for the reproduction of sea turtles by destroying their natural habitat, as turtles nest at the top edge of the beach. As all sea turtles and their essential habitats for reproduction and feeding are protected, the equipment and machines that served to break the law could eventually be seized.

An injured turtle was spotted on February 19 in the bay of Marigot—where boat speeds are limited to three knots—by the personnel of Marina Fort Louis and Tradewind Charters, who immediately informed the Réserve Naturelle. The agents recovered the young green sea turtle, which was still alive, but signs of a violent impact with a boat propeller could be seen on its shell. An examination by a veterinarian showed that the spinal column of the animal had been ruptured. The turtle was paralyzed on the rear half of it body, thus unable to swim or reproduce. The only chance for survival would have been in an artificial basin of water for a long convalescence with uncertain results, but lacking a center for such treatment of marine animals in Saint Martin, the turtle was euthanized. This is the sixth known victim of collisions with boats since the 1st of January. Knowing that only one turtle in every thousand has a chance to reach adulthood, 20 to 25 years after it is hatched, it is essential to reduce the speed of all boats, as well as jet skis, especially near the shore and near underwater plant beds that serve as alimentation zones for sea turtles. Collisions with motorized vehicles and poachers are the two prime causes of mortality for sea turtles in Saint Martin.

Tortue verte - Green Turtle © Julien Chalifour
Tortue verte - Green Turtle © Julien Chalifour

On the evening of August 31, at about 11pm, on the beach at Long Bay, about 40 eco-volunteers following the activity of sea turtles were able to observe a green turtle in the process of trying to lay her eggs. For an hour and a half, the animal tried multiple times, but finally went back to the sea without laying any eggs. She came back a little later, but this new effort was also a failure as the next collapsed onto itself as the turtle tired to dig it. According to Julien Chalifour, these unsuccessful attempts are caused by a beach built up with too much sand, as created by Irma, as well as successive swells caused by the hurricane. This episode once again illustrates the importance of not disturbing such egg-laying activities, as well as preservation and management of the natural aspects of the egg-laying zones: vegetation, development, compacting of sand, lighting...

Good To Know
A sea turtle ready to lay her eggs has a window of just three days to do so successfully. After this time frame, and considering that she is capable of nesting several times in the same season, she must dispose of her eggs in the ocean to make room for the next eggs that are forming. Sea turtles only lay eggs every two or three years, but are capable of making nests three to eight times in the same season, with an average of 60 to 120 eggs each time. But only one in 1000 baby sea turtles ever reaches adulthood, 20 to 25 years after hatching. The others often fall to predators, or are victims of accidents, pollution, fishing boats, or poachers.
Sans commentaire - No comment
Sans commentaire - No comment

The activities of construction and reconstruction in Saint Martin have been really ramping up over the past five months, and it is totally legitimate that everyone wants to rebuild their homes and businesses. The island’s natural ecosystems, also impacted by the hazards of climate change, remain in bad condition and need revitalization. It is equally as important to avoid damaging them any further. Contrary to common sense, it is also important to respect the regulations and to get solid advice from the appropriate services that have jurisdiction over the environment, such as UT DEAL Saint Barthélemy and Saint Martin at the prefecture. That’s what a villa owner in Terres-Basses should have done before starting work to rebuild a wall along the beach. This work led the builder to create a cavity more than three meters deep on a beach listed and identified as an egg-laying site sea turtles. In France—and this in Saint Martin —sea turtles, certain bird and plant species are protected, as are the habitats that shelter them. The destruction of sites with geological importance, or the natural habitats of non-domesticated animal species, and non-cultivated vegetation constitutes an offense, as noted in the environmental code. The responsible party risks a maximum term of two years in prison and a fine of 150,000 €. This regulation applies in all natural, terrestrial, and coastal zones in Saint Martin.

Une tortue imbriquée en ponte - Hawksbill turtle laying her eggs
Une tortue imbriquée en ponte - Hawksbill turtle laying her eggs

The 2018 egg-laying season for sea turtles runs through November. The team of eco-volunteers tasked with walking the beaches in the hopes of seeing tracks made by a turtle that has come to lay its eggs has been reduced to about 30 people this year. Not a single set of tracks had been seen as of early June, but that is nothing to be alarmed about. In fact, at this point, no fewer than six tracks have been reported on the beaches of Tintamare, which is exactly the same number noted at the same time in 2017. Julien Chalifour, scientific director for the Réserve, will wait until the end of the season to reflect on any eventual consequences on the egg-laying habits of the sea turtles due to the disruption of the beaches by the hurricane, as well as the unusual climatic conditions.

How to become an eco-volunteer and participate in the scientific study of sea turtle egg-laying habits? All it takes is to be available once a week, or even once a month, based on your schedule, and the Réserve will train you. To volunteer, contact: science@rnsm.org
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