Endangered Treasures

Latest update June 14, 2019 Started on May 19, 2019

We're on a mission to discover and protect the Pearl Islands’ endangered treasures through collaborating with the local community to investigate newly reported nesting grounds, fisheries bycatch and human use of sea turtles.

May 19, 2019
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Thank you for following our expedition to Isla Del Rey! It's time to introduce our research team: Felipe Baker, Marino Abrego, Daniel Suman, Fidel Munoz, Bryan Wallace, and myself, Callie Veelenturf. We are in preparation mode for our upcoming field work start date of October, 2019!

Felipe and I will be stationed in a local field camp on Punta Coco, Isla Del Rey running the research activities with the assistance of local Isla Del Rey islander, Fidel Munoz. Marino Abrego and Daniel Suman will be involved directly with the permitting of the research, management planning, and incorporation of data into the current conservation and marine protection political system. Bryan Wallace will be generally advising on the research and management plan development that results from the project.

Felipe is an indigenous native of Panama that was first impassioned to work in ocean conservation through a fateful interaction with nesting sea turtles when he was just eight years old. He was inspired from a young age to further understand these marine reptiles and learn how to mitigate the threats that they face. He is now a student of Natural Sciences at the University of Panama, and through our funding from the National Geographic Society will be conducting his senior research project on understanding the threats of marine turtles in the Pearl Islands and developing strategies for the conservation of these species in the face of drastic environmental changes and development.

Fidel is a local community leader in the Pearl Islands. Specifically, he is the community pastor and settles civil disputes throughout the island. We are honored to have him participating in and supporting this conservation project.

Marino has earned a Bachelor's degree in Biology with a Specialization in Zoology and is candidate for a Master's degree in Management of Coastal Marine Resources from the International Maritime University of Panama. He has experience in wildlife monitoring, implementation of environmental management plans, monitoring and evaluation of marine coastal resources, establishing and implementing mitigation plans, education and outreach. He has been the Representative of Panama before the Scientific Committee of the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles (CIT) since 2009. He is currently the Coordinator of the National Program of Protection, Conservation and Research of Marine Turtles of the Ministry of Environment of Panama (MiAMBIENTE).

Daniel Suman is a Professor in Marine Policy and Coastal Management at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science of the University of Miami. His research and project areas focus on coastal management, governance of marine resources and space, management of mangroves and coastal wetlands, and marine protected areas – particularly in Latin America. Daniel earned a Ph.D. in oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. At the University of Miami, he has taught courses for 25 years in Environmental Law, Environmental Planning, Coastal Management, Coastal Law and Water Resources Policy.

Dr. Bryan Wallace is a bilingual (English and Spanish) wildlife ecologist specializing in marine conservation biology, particularly protected resources biology and conservation and fisheries management. In recent years, he has coordinated an international network of researchers and managers toward collective research and conservation goals to reverse the decline of critically endangered leatherback turtles in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Bryan has extensive experience in leading and advising projects dealing with wildlife monitoring research and management in international and US geographies, as well as in collaborative applied research projects, project management and program evaluation.

We have a powerhouse team and are looking forward to getting to work!

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Expedition Background

It was 8:00 pm on January 9th, 2015, a day that will always be embedded in my memory. I woke to the words “Baula baula baula!” getting increasingly louder outside my window at the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge field station. An adult leatherback sea turtle female, una baula, had begun emerging to lay her eggs on the beach just about half a mile from the station. I saw my first dinosaur-like turtle haul her massive, leathery body onto the sand. Exhaling with groaning breaths, reminiscent of the Cretaceous period, I could feel my eyes expand, wet with tears of awe. In past seasons, field teams would have witnessed several leatherback nesting events between the months of January and March. Due to the devastation of the critically endangered Eastern Pacific (EP) leatherback subpopulation, however, this was the only nest that was laid during that time period in 2015. I realized then that I was personally witnessing the extinction trajectory of a species that has lived for over 100 million years.

I am a marine conservation biologist and National Geographic Explorer dedicated to ocean conservation. Sea turtle conservation has brought me to various countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and West Africa, and I have initiated an organization called The Leatherback Project (TLP). This initiative is dedicated to conserving leatherback turtles the world over through community empowerment, research and activism. My current research interests include mitigating fisheries bycatch through grassroots community partnerships and campaigns, bycatch reduction technology research, delineation of non-target species coastal habitat use, and the development of effective management strategies.

Funding from the National Geographic Society will lead me to Isla del Rey, the Pearl Islands, Panama to study new sea turtle nesting sites, human use of turtles, and fisheries bycatch. Verbal reports indicate that Isla del Rey not only provides nesting habitat for olive ridley and green sea turtles but also for leatherback turtles. This has yet to be officially confirmed or denied. The funded project will be the first of it’s kind in the Pearl Islands. Apart from providing baseline data, the project will elucidate the history of human use of sea turtles, inform regional population estimates and develop strategies for conservation solutions.

The drastic decline of the EP leatherback within the past three decades have been primarily due to fisheries bycatch, poaching, and climate change, leaving the subpopulation listed as critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Redlist. The most recent IUCN population estimate (2013) was 633 total individuals, and current projections estimate that by the year 2040, there will be only 30 adults in the subpopulation. Only seven of these will be egg-laying females, which represents a 99.9% reduction in the subpopulation and represents functional extinction. Population size is estimated using the number of nesting females at the nesting beaches, internesting intervals, generation times (~30 years), and the persistence of threats. Having an accurate and expansive understanding of the number of nesting individuals in the region is therefore vital to understanding the health of the subpopulation and priorities for conservation. To date, potential leatherback nesting habitat along the Pacific coast of Panama has not been surveyed on-the-ground. Through initial research I have uncovered four reported, yet officially undocumented, leatherback nesting grounds (lsla Coiba, lsla Jicaron, Cerro Hoya, the Pearl Islands), including three beaches on Punta Coco, lsla del Rey, the Pearl islands.

Based on preliminary interviews with community members from the Pearl Islands and long-time residents, leatherback nesting is yearly and poaching events are common. Poaching is not only of nesting individuals, but also of sea turtles caught while foraging in the gulf of Panama. It has been reported that sea turtle meat is sold for about $1.50 USD per pound in the local market. Increased beach temperatures and erosion are already decreasing the reproductive output of sea turtles globally. In order to prevent EP leatherback extirpation, we must document all nesting grounds and institute proper protection measures. This project is part of a larger investigation to provide insights for expansive leatherback protection throughout the EP. Beach, fisheries and community survey results will lay the groundwork for protection of all sea turtle species found on the island. Through collaborating with the local community, we will be able to unearth the turtle history of the islands and how development can move forward sustainably to support both the local islanders and endangered wildlife.

Our field season is October 2019-March 2020. Stay tuned for updates throughout the preparation process and from the field!

Thank you so much for your support Laura!

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