Little Compass Rose Caribbean Compass  February 1999


The Turtle Debate

uestions have been raised recently [Readers' Forum, Compass January '99] about the rearing of hawksbill turtle hatchlings for eventual release into the wild, as is being done by the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary at Park Bay on Bequia. Do the advantages of raising public awareness and the possibility of increasing the endangered sea turtles' population outweigh the potential risk of introducing disease to wild stocks? Compass has contacted several scientists, asking for their word on the subject.

Allan Smith of the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute at Vieux Fort, St. Lucia, explains, "Raising young turtles for release is called `headstarting', and has been done for years in the Cayman Islands for example." Allan has discussed headstarting with Scott Eckert, a turtle biologist (who is married to the Executive Director of the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network), and Allan shares Scott's reply with Compass:

"The primary question is whether hatchlings raised for a year in captivity have the capacity to become reproductive members of the wild population if they don't become reproductive, they have no value to the wild population. While there is some evidence that headstarted turtles may survive, there is no data on whether that survival rate is higher than that of natural-emergence hatchlings. So, as to the usefulness of headstarting, the jury is still out. Personally, I don't recommend it, particularly given the effort and cost to rear sea turtles for a year. If the same effort and cost were put into protecting beaches, mitigating or minimizing threats (e.g. lighting), the net conservation effect would be much higher." "On Scott's point about cost," notes Allan, "the Cayman Turtle Farm is a major tourist attraction, which takes care of the bills."

Dr. Elliott Jacobson, of the University of Florida School of Veterinary Medicine, says: "Your questions [on the possibility of introducing disease to wild turtles] have been raised by other individuals involved in similar projects and are not easily answered. The bottom line is that there is very little information on diseases of hawksbills and each project needs to define the diseases in the population they intend for release. This means that complete work-ups are needed to define the causes of illness and disease in the population being released. Without this, no one has any idea of what potentially could happen. Setting up such a program is not easy. I will be glad to help to try and establish a proper assessment program. However all involved in the program must sign on that this is worthwhile."

In regard to the skin fungus which Orton "Brother" King, proprietor of Old Hegg, says is the only disease he has seen among turtles he has raised, Dr. Julia Horrocks of the Belair Institute in Barbados says: "The risk of captive-reared or `head-started' turtles infecting wild turtles with disease is unknown, but is of potential concern. "The skin fungus that you mention is a common occurrence in captive hawksbills. It can occur when the animals are overcrowded and when the water is not clean enough. Young sea turtles are adapted to feed primarily at the water surface, and at this size in the wild the animals would be feeding on whatever they find floating in the water, plant or animal. In confinement, they therefore peck at any floating object including each other and thereby worsen any injuries on the skin surface, increasing the opportunity for infection. Most of these infections probably clear up once the animals are released into the sea."

Dr. Fred Groves of Northeast Louisiana University says: "Wildlife `hospitals' where various marine vertebrates are taken care of have proliferated over the past 20 years, and most of them work with marine turtles as well as injured seabirds, porpoises, etc. With this fact in mind, I do not feel that what is being done at Bequia is going to harm the hawksbill turtles. I have just returned from Bequia, so I have not had time to investigate the questions raised by Brother King at our visit with him. However, I know that there are several such efforts around the world to raise marine turtles of various species in the manner that he is using, so my initial feeling is that what he is doing is okay. I plan to do a detailed investigation of the literature to make sure of this in the near future."

Marine biologist Nathalie Ward of the Marine Education and Research Center, a frequent visitor to Old Hegg, tells us: "This is a very important issue. Hawksbill turtles are listed at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as critically endangered worldwide. This status is received if a population shows more than an 80-percent decline over three generations. Basically, I believe that Brother King's headstarting practices need to be modified according to the science that I have read, BUT that his public awareness efforts for tourists and locals are extremely valuable for sea turtle conservation."

Dr. Horrocks adds, "[headstarting] is not the answer to restoring local populations. Even if hand-raised turtles did survive well in the wild, how would it matter if illegal killing continues and nesting beaches continue to be destroyed by poorly conceived hotel developments? These are the real issues that need to be addressed in the Caribbean, if hawksbills are to survive in this region."

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