Beaches along Trinidad's east coast like Grande Riviere, Mathura, Sans Souci, Fishing Pond, Guayama, Blanchisseuse and Madamas beckon the gigantic leatherback, green, hawksbill, loggerhead and Olive Ridley turtles. Swimming gracefully, the magnificent marine creatures frequent Maracas, Tompire, Blanchisseuse and Patience Bay. The turtle nesting season opened on March 1, Thursday and continues until the end of August 31 (Independence Day). Interviewed on Thursday, Managing Director for Nature Seekers Dennis Sammy says while poaching is down, bi-catch remains a problem. He explained while fishermen seek to empty the ocean of prized kingfish and carite for the Lenten period, turtles often get inadvertently caught in their nets. Both fishermen and turtles end up being sore losers-since the fisherman has to cough out dollars to repair nets which cost as much as $30,000. Turtles, which are an endangered species globally, drown. Sammy said: "Some fishermen have been catching turtles. Recently, a fisherman caught three and one died. Bi-catch is a huge problem not just for turtles but for Trinidad. It is one of the ancient species and bi-catch could really destroy the population. When they drown in the nets they are washed ashore from Mayaro straight to Matelot."
He said: "There isn't significant poaching on the beaches. It has to do with the level of awareness and education. But there are beaches where poaching takes place and it is difficult to keep track." He cited examples such as Manzanilla's stretch of beautiful beach, which is fringed by coconut palms, and Paria Bay which is difficult to access. "Manzanilla has a lot of beach to cover. Paria is harder to monitor since it hardly has people there to manage that area. It is a little out of the way." Among the interventions he felt would reduce the problem of bi-catch were promoting alternative fishing methods and creating opportunities to have lines set in the areas where fishermen frequent. He noted fishermen were not adamant about working with conservationists since "it costs them every time they have to repair a net. They would prefer if they did not have to cut their nets." Sammy felt government should do its part to better regulate the fishing industry. "If legislation on things like the types of nets are implemented, then it becomes a lot easier," he said.
"Treat turtles with respect"
Commenting on the opening of turtle season, forester Atherly Harry said special permits would have to be granted to enter protected beaches. They have been nesting in T&T since the 17th century. Another significant feature was turtles were migratory and T&T served as a port-of-call for a few months only. He said: "You would have to get approval...special permits... for areas like Grande Riviere and Matura." He appealed to the public to respect and show compassion for these "ancient dinosaurs." Using the analogy of a gestant woman, he said: "I always say to people to treat the turtles, the way you would treat a pregnant woman. Don't ride on their backs. Leave these magnificent creatures alone. T&T is blessed that they come to our shores. They frequent beaches like Gran Tacoreb. Places you didn't dream about. It is important we provide a safe haven for them." Turtle lovers might be fortunate to see as much as 500 turtles on one night during the peak nesting period.
Moonilal: "turtles are protected species"
In a speech delivered at Sangre Grande Civic Centre (February 26, 2011), he paid kudos to the Forestry Division for their active involvement. He cited the Conservation Wildlife Act, Chapter 67: 01) which considers marine turtles as protected species. He said: "In the 1980s, they were being slaughtered on the east coast at an alarming rate of 30 to 40 per cent. As a result, the Forestry Division through the Wildlife Section, implemented protection and conservation initiatives in an effort to curb the slaughter of these majestic marine reptiles. The Division began the process of getting the nesting beaches of Mathura and Fishing Pond declared as Prohibited Areas under the Forests' Act."
He cited statistics which stated "a total of five to 10 leatherback turtles are killed annually on land. An estimated 10,000 leatherbacks now nest in Trinidad, compared to 500 in 1987, which places the population as the largest in the Western hemisphere and perhaps the world."
Matura, communities come onboard
Moonilal said 1990 was significant since three significant strides took place-the Forestry Division took the step of seeking the assistance of Matura Community, community members were employed to patrol the beach and turtle nesting data collection began to take shape. He said: "Matura accepted the invitation. Programmes of awareness, education and training were important steps in enlisting support for turtle conservation. It led to an eco tourism initiative and since 1991, Nature Seekers began conducting tours for visitors at the Matura Beach." Training programmes were extended to Fishing Pond and Grande Riviere. Among the conservation groups which are involved in turtle protection are Nariva Environmental Trust, Manatee, North Manzanilla Village Council, Fishing Pond Conservation Group, Nature Seekers, San Souci Wildlife Tours, Toco Foundation, Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guide Association, PAWI Sports Club and the Blanchisseuse Environment and Art Trust. Moonilal further challenged stakeholders to look after the welfare of turtles since "the future of the leatherback turtles rests here, and what happens to the T&T population will impact on the species as a whole." He added since the land conservation activities had been successful to date, it was important to continue the effort to ensure turtles continue to be present on T&T beaches and territorial waters for generations to come. Among those present were Tourism Minister Dr Rupert Griffith, Anthony Ramnarine Conservator of Forests and Deputy Conservator of Forests Kenny Singh.
Beach clean up at Matura today
As turtle season gets under way, Sammy said a beach clean up is scheduled for Matura Beach, at Toco Road. About 1,000 volunteers will lend a helping hand to clean about about 5 km of nesting beach for the turtles. It starts at 7 am till 11.30 am. Apart from the beautification works, a "sand turtle" competition will be held.
Turtle watching tips
Keep movement to a minimum; so as not to disturb turtles
Keep a safe distance away as indicated by tour guide
If the turtle shows signs of distress, move away at once
No use of flashlights or flash photography
Allow hatchlings to make it to the ocean alone
Wear warm clothing and comfortable shoes
Don't light campfires, smoke or litter
Don't drive on nesting beaches
Don't stake umbrellas or other objects on nesting beaches
Avoid disturbing the eggs or nests
Control dogs on the beach because they dig up nests.
Provision of funding to community partners; the success was dependent on vibrant community partners along the east coast who conduct successful tour-guiding operations on the nesting beaches and in the forests;
Provision of manpower to patrol respective beaches for data collection;
Protection of the nesting female;
Collaborating with national and international organisations in the implementation of research projects-such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Fora (CITES) Convention on Biological Diversity, UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, Cartagena Convention and the Western Hemisphere Convention;
Saving turtles, keeping fishermen's livelihoods intact;
About marine turtles
Green turtles (Chelonia mydas) has a wide distribution in subtropical and tropical seas worldwide. It is the only herbivorious marine turtle with a diet consisting mainly of sea grasses an algae. Population status: occasional.
Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) is a tropical species living near coral reefs. It is rarely seen in temperate waters. The main reason for its decline has been centuries of trade in tortoise shell. This trade is now illegal but there is still a strong demand for tortoise shell products particularly in Asia. Population status: Abundant.
Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coricacea) are the largest of the marine turtles. It can reach a carapace length of 1.5 metres and a weight of 480 kg. It is one of the heaviest reptiles in Trinidad waters. Population status: Abundant.
Loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) is a large species with a red-brown carapace. Compared to other marine turtles, the head is much larger in relation to body size, accommodating powerful jaws. Loggerhead turtles are found around the world in warm temperate and tropical waters. Population status: Rare.
Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) turtles are the smallest of the marine turtles and is probably the most abundant. It is nevertheless considered to be endangered and suffers the same general threats as other marine turtles. Population status: Rare.
(Information courtesy Forestry Division of T&T)
Permits can be purchased at Forestry Division
Long Circular Road: 622-7476
San Fernando: 657-7357
Sangre Grande: 668-3825