Dead turtle sightings spark alarm among conservationists

Following reports of ‘hundreds of dead turtles’ found floating off Nicaragua’s west coast, the Nicaraguan Sea Turtle Conservation Network last week convened an emergency summit to discuss the evidence and plan a response.

Hosted by Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the summit brought together experts from across the country to pool reports from their respective regions in order to gain a clearer picture of what is happening.

The attendees concluded that although there does appear to be an increase in the occurrence of dead turtles, they were not able to substantiate claims that ‘hundreds’ had been killed.

Nevertheless, network members are ramping up sea patrols in the areas where dead turtles have been reported and in the waters adjacent to Nicaragua’s two main nesting beaches: La Flor and Chacocente (an FFI project site).

Olive ridley at Chacocente. Credit: Enrique de la Montana/FFI.
A female olive ridley turtle lays her eggs at Chacocente. Credit: Enrique de la Montana/FFI.

Initial findings suggest that these deaths may have been caused by entanglement in fishing gear, blast fishing and deliberate targeting for their eggs, so the patrol teams will be accompanied by officers from INPESCA (the Nicaraguan Institute for Fisheries and Aquaculture), who will provide support if illegal fishing activity is discovered. Naval forces have also been asked to join the effort.

At the same time, statistics are being compiled using historical data to verify the suspected upward trend in turtle mortality.

Peril on the sea?

“Although the evidence gathered so far suggests that early reports of ‘mass mortality’ may not be accurate, this news is nonetheless troubling, especially at a time of year when olive ridley turtles are due to begin their arribadas,” said Edgard Herrera, FFI’s country programme manager in Nicaragua.

Arribadas are incredible natural events during which females gather offshore near key nesting beaches, before coming ashore in vast numbers (sometimes even tens or hundreds of thousands) over just a few days to lay their eggs. Although other turtle species are known to nest in groups, only the olive ridley and the closely-related Kemp’s ridley nest in such numbers and synchrony.

“Chacocente is one of the few beaches in the world where arribadas occur, and it is also a critical nesting spot for leatherback turtles,” Herrera continued.

Among other casualties, 10 dead turtles have been reported (along with two dolphins and two marlins) near Chacocente. Four more were reported at Estero Padre Ramos – another FFI project site.

“Over the last 10 years – with the support of the community – we have made great progress on protecting Chacocente’s turtles and their nests. But news of turtles being harmed out to sea is worrying, and it is imperative that we find out what’s really going on,” concluded Herrera.

FFI will endeavour to keep readers informed as this situation develops, so stay tuned for more news over the coming weeks.

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