La Réserve naturelle de Saint-Martin est une aire marine protégée de 30km2 située au nord-est de l’île de Saint-Martin. Créé en 1998, cet espace préserve les cinq principaux écosystèmes de l’île : récifs coralliens, mangroves, herbiers de phanérogames, étangs et forêt sèche littorale. La Réserve gère également les 14 étangs du Conservatoire du littoral et ses 11 km de rivages terrestres naturels.

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

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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