On June 16, 2014, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Bay Islands and Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA) launched a joint conservation project to protect the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles on the Caribbean island of Utila, north of Honduras. Hawksbill sea turtles arrive on this small, fairly obscure island to nest on a yearly basis.
It is estimated that there are only 8,000 female hawksbill sea turtles remaining in the world. Therefore, there is an urgent need for extreme care and monitoring of this fragile population. Sea Shepherd Bay Islands is in the unique position of being responsible for protecting a percentage of the world’s breeding hawksbill females, documenting at least 14 tagged and four untagged breeding females that nest on private property in Utila.
While BICA, the local municipality represented by Mayor Troy Bodden, and the Honduran government, all have the best interests of the hawksbills at heart, they can only do so much to protect them due to a massive lack of funding at every level. It is not an overstatement to say that Sea Shepherd Bay Islands is on the frontlines in the fight for the hawksbills’ survival on Utila.
Until this recent campaign, these sea turtles would arrive onshore to poachers awaiting the opportunity to steal their eggs to be falsely sold as aphrodisiacs, and then killing the turtles for their meat and shells. However, with a regular volunteer presence during the nesting season lasting three months, not a single nest or turtle was captured or killed by poachers at this beach.
Given that the hawksbill turtle can nest two to three times per season, laying up to 200 eggs per nest, Sea Shepherd Bay Islands has protected approximately 4,000 hawksbill eggs, resulting in a documented count of 3,600 hatchlings getting a chance at life at sea without the threat of being poached. Unfortunately, the odds for survival certainly aren’t in favor of these hatchlings. The sobering fact is that only one out of 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings will reach breeding maturity, for a chance to contribute to propagating their species.
Sea turtles often fall victim as bycatch in commercial fishing or to net or hook entanglement, along with the threats of poaching, and the illegal trade of their valuable eggs, meat and shells. Sadly, turtle meat and eggs are still part of the traditional Caribbean menu, despite being declared illegal by the Honduran government. Unfortunately, making it illegal to poach turtles, inadvertently creates a black market demand for them at the same time. Hawksbills in particular, are at even greater risk due to their comparatively thinner shell, which makes them easy prey for predators, and also highly sought after for use in jewelry throughout the Caribbean.
Unlike neighboring islands that have fallen to rampant and indiscriminate commercial development, most of Utila’s nesting areas are still virtually untouched. Due to the fact that the nesting females will unerringly and inevitably return to their natal beaches every two to three years, it is of utmost importance to keep these habitats protected for the species to have a chance at survival.
To protect the turtles from poachers, Sea Shepherd volunteers patrolled the nesting area on the northern side of the island nightly, searching for signs of any turtle activity and hiding tracks and nests along the way. Initially, poachers waited until the premises were clear to get to the nests. Unfortunately for them, the volunteers remained on site throughout the night until sunrise when all turtle activity stops, and they removed all markings leading to the location of the nests. Poacher presence in the area started decreasing after just the first month of our turtle defense campaign.
Poachers don’t want to risk the chance of being arrested. Volunteers would stay in contact with Utila’s municipal police, the Honduran National Police and the nearby Honduras Navy base in the event there were any incidents on patrol.
While nightly beach patrols in search of new nesting turtles officially ended in mid-September, volunteers continued to protect the existing nests throughout the remainder of the month, until all eggs hatched and the hatchlings made it to the water untouched.
During the turtle defense campaign, Sea Shepherd Bay Islands recruited and mobilized more than 150 volunteers to protect the hawksbill turtle. The safety of these endangered hawksbills and their offspring would not have been possible without the funding and organizational assistance from Sea Shepherd USA.