DMWR continues to monitor the “i’a sa” — unfortunately the turtles have become rare
The Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR) is still very active with the ongoing Turtle Project, which includes nesting beach monitoring focused on Ofu in the Manu’a Islands, and responding to strandings (dead/live, hatchling recovery) in Tutuila.
DMWR wildlife biologist Alden Tagarino, who is in charge of the project, explained that the goal of the Turtle Project is to implement a conservation program for the species, and to determine the nesting season and the population status of the ‘i’a sa’ in American Samoa.
The good news is, there has been a lot of progress. Near-shore surveys were conducted between 2005 and 2009, as well as satellite tagging activities, nesting beach remediation, flipper tagging, tissue sampling for genetic study, response to live and dead strandings, and necropsies — to determine the cause of death, and education and outreach.
Tagarino said a dozen satellite tags were deployed and Ms. Toaga, a female post nesting turtle tagged in Ofu Island, is currently the longest distance migration of a hawksbill turtle in the world. This information was presented at the International Sea Turtle Symposium in Baltimore, Maryland last month. Tagarino successfully tracked Ms. To’aga from January 19, 2010 to December 27, 2010 during which time Ms. To'aga traveled about 6000 km.
The National Park Service says that “biologists studying sea turtle navigation have found that they use the earth's magnetic field to find their way. It is still a mystery as to exactly how this built-in compass works, but evidently it works very well since after many years roaming distant Pacific feeding grounds, a mother sea turtle can still find her way back to the site of her own birth to lay eggs for a new generation.”
Tagarino said the Turtle Project helps during federal reviews of construction projects and other federally funded projects that may have an impact on the turtles and/or their habitats.
Currently, there is no accurate population estimate of how many turtles are on island, although Tagarino says there is a 1% survival rate of hatchlings, according to certain studies.(This is down from 3% survival rate, he noted).
He said it will take more time to get a good estimate and “we need to look into getting more information on the demographics of the species here.”
But like everything else, the continuation of the project is dependent upon funding, and money has been decreasing in general for this particular project.
“We do have numbers on responses made and nesting events monitored in Tutuila and Manu’a,” Tagarino explained, adding that they will need some time, at least a day, to focus on answering questions pertaining to the subject, in order to get exact figures.
When asked why turtles are so important, Tagarino responded, “First of all, they are a part of the Samoan culture. Secondly, they are a protected species, both locally and federally.”
Tagarino says the turtle, which is not harmful to local animal and plant life, plays a huge number of roles in the ecosystem — as predator and prey, competitors and hosts — to maintain the ecological balance.
The turtle project is still ongoing in Ofu and currently, during this nesting season, DMWR is monitoring nine nests. Tagarino said there isn’t a big population of turtles there.
Also, two maps have been created for the Swains Islands, one in 2009 and another one last year.
When asked how many different species of turtles are in Tutuila, Aunuu, Manu'a and Swains, Tagarino explained that there are the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas), the Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriaca), and the Olive Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea).
Only the green turtles and hawksbill turtles nest in the territory.
So what does DMWR do when they receive reports of turtle sightings? Tagarino said if the turtles are discovered healthy and alive, they collect morphometric data, and flipper tag and collect tissue samples for genetic studies, before they release the turtle at the site or find alternate sites like Fagaalu.
However, if a turtle is found dead, DMWR collects morphometric data, if possible (sometimes they are too decomposed or falling apart to collect measurements), collect tissue samples for genetic studies, and then perform necropsies (same as an autopsy for humans), to find out the cause of death.
DMWR works with Dr. Thierry Work of the USGS, who conducts the pathology or lab work.
When asked if there been any cases where turtles were captured for human consumption, Tagarino said since he started working at DMWR in 2007, there hasn’t been any recorded human consumption case. However, they have historical anecdotal reports from Aunu’u in 1960-1961 where 22 people got sick and two people died after eating a turtle.
Also, according to Tagarino, in the early 1990s, there was a report of two guys who ate a turtle and later developed skin problems (scaly skin). The pair allegedly died not long afterwards, although this fact is yet to be verified.
Turtles are an endangered species. Tagarino said depending on the species, turtles usually consume sea grass, sponges, coral, jellyfish, small crustaceans, and fish.
Tagarino reminds the public that it is illegal to hunt turtles.
Executive Order #005-2003 declares the Territorial Waters of American Samoa as a Sea Turtle and Marine Mammal Sanctuary. Additionally, it is noted in the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
WAYS TO HELP SEA TURTLES
The National Park Service says there are a few things everyone can do to help the sea turtles. “First, if you see a sea turtle on the beach, don't touch or move it. If you think it might be in trouble, call DMWR or NPSA to report it and get help.
Don't tamper with nests or baby sea turtles. The best thing we can do to help them is let them hatch and crawl naturally. If you know there is a nest on the beach, try to keep dogs away so they won't disturb the eggs. If it is possible, turn off lights in the vicinity of a sea turtle nest. Artificial light at night disrupts a baby sea turtle's instinctual navigation system and can make it crawl the wrong way.”
“Finally, fight litter. It can seem like a hopeless mission when we see all the trash people leave on the ground, but take heart, there are many people who want to respect the land and keep the islands beautiful, we just need to keep trying.
Trash, especially plastics, are hazardous to marine life and it is easy for it to end up in the ocean when not disposed of properly. Sea turtles will try to eat plastic because underwater, plastic bags look like one of their favorite foods, jellyfish.
Instead of getting a tasty meal, they end up choking or clogging their stomachs. Agencies like DMWR and NPSA are working hard to spread the word about sea turtles to the children at school and the larger community. It is always an amazing sight to catch a glimpse of an ‘i’a sa’ gliding gracefully over the reef.”
“Unfortunately, this sight is not as common as it once was. Hopefully, if we all do our part, these sea turtles will not become extinct and will again visit our waters and beaches in great numbers.”
For more information on the Turtle Project, or for assistance when turtles are sighted, contact Alden Tagarino directly at 633-4456.
The National Park Service says that “American Samoa is home to several species listed in the Endangered Species Act, including two sea turtles (I'a sa) that visit our waters and make their nests both inside and outside the National Park of American Samoa (NPSA) boundaries.
The Hawksbill (Laumei ulumanu/faiuga) and Green (Laumei tualimu/meamata) sea turtles utilize the sandy beaches here to lay their eggs. After hatching on land, the baby sea turtles crawl to the ocean and swim out to begin their life at sea.”
“An interesting aspect of sea turtle behavior is that after decades of maturing, sea turtles will navigate thousands of miles back to the location of their birth to lay eggs. Some species will even return to the exact beach where they were born. The i’a sa (sea turtle) and the Samoan people share a long heritage and sea turtles appear in many Samoan songs, legends, and artwork. Once, sea turtles were a traditional source of material for objects like combs and fishhooks. They were also a source of food.”
Sea turtles were abundant in those times and sadly, the situation has changed dramatically and i’a sa have become rare and in danger of becoming extinct.
In 2011, NPS issued a press release where Manu’a District Governor Misa'alefua John Hudson, who grew up on Ofu Island, reminisced about his boyhood and shared how he remembers seeing many large sea turtles in the water and their tracks on all the sand beaches.
“He describes how you could lure a sea turtle by placing a large leaf out in the water and wait for the turtle to go under the shade of it. Nowadays, many young Samoans have never seen a living sea turtle at all.”
The NPS reminds everyone that there are territorial and federal laws that impose penalties up to $250,000 in fines and one year in prison for killing a sea turtle or importing sea turtle products into the territory. “These laws are a response to the seriousness of the threats to sea turtles. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the Green as endangered and the Hawksbill as critically endangered because their populations have declined worldwide by as much as 67% and 80%, respectively, in the last three generations.”
The Endangered Species Act has had success in preventing the extinction of many species including the gray wolf, the grizzly bear, and the humpback whale.
However, the NPS notes, “helping our sea turtles is a difficult matter because they travel great distances as part of their life cycle. A turtle may be protected while it is here in territorial waters, but it might spend much of its life in other places where laws may not be as strict or enforced.”