Endangered Species Day: Jamaica’s Sea Turtles Are Living on the Edge


There was a painful, sad post on social media this morning: the Bluefields Bay Fishermen’s Friendly Society needs help to save and protect our Sea Turtles. On May 8 and 14, 2020 two females were killed and all the body parts stolen.

“Our Game Wardens are ready and able but are in need of your financial support to get to the site at nights. Please help us save our Sea Turtles by donating to our Monitoring Programme,” added dedicated conservationist Wolde Kristos of Bluefields, Westmoreland. Resources are slim for us to help these wonderful creatures. If you would like to help sustain the monitoring program, please let me know.

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Hawksbill Turtles at Bluefields.

For the record, the existence of all four of the sea turtle species to be found in Caribbean waters is threatened. They are all protected under Jamaica’s Endangered Species Act. The two that were killed in Bluefields were Hawksbill Turtles; we also have Green Turtles, Loggerhead Turtles and Leatherback Turtles.

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The lovely Hawksbill Turtle. Loss of coral reefs is one of the many threats to this turtle, which loves to eat sea sponges on the reefs. Female hawksbill turtles return to the beaches where they were born every two to five years to nest. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

There are many efforts to help turtles along in their dangerous journey to adulthood; only about one in 1,000 of those tiny turtles actually grow up. Apart from the “natural” dangers, there is a long list of threats to the turtles’ existence resulting from human activity: people disturbing the nests and collecting eggs; animals caught in fishing gear and abandoned nets at sea; tourism development and increased coastal development in general, intruding on or destroying nesting beaches; marine pollution – including various forms of garbage, plastic etc; oil spills; the degradation of seagrass and coral reefs where the animals feed. The issue of climate change (not a “natural” phenomenon either) is not far away from the decline in many of the world’s animal species.

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Thankfully, Jamaica has banned plastic straws and plastic shopping bags – which are particular hazards to sea turtles/

It’s hard to believe that some two or three hundred years ago, there were huge breeding populations of sea turtles – according to records, the seas were literally crowded with them. They were harvested for food until numbers declined drastically.

Sea turtles move around, so it’s important for countries to co-operate across the region in conservation projects. There is a Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network(WIDECAST), which is working on a regional approach and is coordinated by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA). The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in the Caribbean, based in Kingston, also promotes conservation programs under its Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol. Although the SPAW Protocol Secretariat has its home in Kingston, Jamaica is one of the few countries that have not yet formally ratified it. UNEP notes there are benefits to be obtained from acceding to the Protocol, which falls under the Cartagena Convention on Biodiversity. These would include support for marine protected areas, conservation of endangered species such as our turtles, small grants, etc. I am not sure why there is this reluctance on the part of the Jamaican Government.

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Eco-tourism would certainly be an obvious way in which we could encourage the conservation of endangered species such as our turtles, and some hotels actively include environmental education and activities in their programmes and support marine conservation programs. In Jamaica these supportive hotels include Jamaica Inn, Couples, and Sandals through its Foundation. There are also several non-governmental and community-based organizations around the island that have turtle monitoring programs, forging partnerships with fishers and community members. These include the Alligator Head Foundation in eastern Portland, which has established the East Portland Fish Sanctuary; the Oracabessa Foundation in St. Mary, which boasts one of the most successful turtle conservation projects in the Caribbean; Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), which has worked with communities in Portland, St. Elizabeth and Westmoreland to monitor sea turtle nesting, providing training and equipment; and Bluefields itself of course. Then on the south coast the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM), in the Portland Bight Protected Area, has a regular monitoring programme for the area’s wildlife, including turtles, birds, manatees, crocodiles and dolphins. This includes rescuing and relocating animals where necessary. C-CAM’s educational programmes also emphasize the importance and value of our wildlife in all its variety – including our endemic and threatened species, which are protected under Jamaican law.

If you have ever witnessed a female sea turtle toiling up the beach in the moonlight, dragging her huge body (around 150 pounds or more) and then laboriously digging her nest, covering it and tracking back again to the sea… Well, I have seen that myself. It is nothing short of magic – the silent, mysterious kind. It is also exciting to see the tiny ones as they hatch and scuttle and skid down to the water’s edge, like clockwork toys.

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Turtle hatchlings heading for the sea. (Photo: Jamaica Environment Trust)

So, “endangered species” might seem like an over-used phrase (oh, everything seems to be endangered these days – possibly even the human race, under COVID-19!) But these creatures – so large and yet so graceful as they sail through the azure waters of the Caribbean in suspended animation – deserve our admiration, our love, our protection.

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A sign erected on a beach in Portland. (My photo)

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