SPREP tracking Pacific turtles | Pacific Beat

SPREP tracking Pacific turtles

SPREP tracking Pacific turtles

Updated 26 March 2014, 11:53 AEDT

For many nature lovers it might seem like the ideal job - keeping track of turtles across the Pacific.

It's something the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme does through TREDS - the Turtle Research and Monitoring Database System.

Some of the work involves tagging turtles and keeping track of tags when turtles arrive on beaches or are caught or found dead.

Presenter: Richard Ewart

Speaker: Mike Donoghue, Terrestrial and Marine Species Adviser, SPREP, Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme


DONOGHUE: Well actually, for me it means mainly sitting at a computer.
EWART: That's unfortunate.
DONOGHUE: Sadly, I don't get to do the travelling. You know how it is, you get to interview lots of nice people and you never go anywhere but a studio. But TREDS Database was established because it was clear to those of us who are working in the field that turtles are declining in abundance for a variety of reasons and that there is an increasing interest and willingness of the parts of Pacific Island countries to contribute to a regional effort to improve conservation prospects, and of course, the SPREP region is an area of about 40 million square kilometres, it's bigger than the moon, and most of the countries are reasonably under-resourced, to put it mildly, so we need to make the most of all the keen people who are out there trying to keep a track on our wildlife.
Now the cheapest way for us to do that with turtles is to use little applicator  tags, little metal tags, that get clipped onto the flippers of turtles, usually nesting females, when they come ashore, but occasionally animals that are caught accidentally be fishermen who bring them back alive and they can then be tagged.
The tags are helpful because they enable us to track, as you mention in your introduction, animals that are killed deliberately or accidentally, if they have a tag on them and the tag gets return, we know where they were tagged, when they were tagged, so we can find out something about they're life history.
The more exciting form of tagging is to use satellite tags, where you attach a satellite transmitter to a turtle and that may go for 18 months, but we have one at the moment that was tagged in the French Polynesia, 15 months ago I think, that is now coming up to 10,000 kilometres and has gone through ten just different Exclusive Economic Zones and has crossed the equator from south to north, and is about to cross back again from north to south in Kiribati. So you get a bit of a feel for what enormous distances these animals travel and how it really is the responsibility of every Pacific Island country to look after their turtles, because they're widely shared around the region.
EWART: There was the turtle, I think, was it last year, that famously had gone as far as Indonesia, so I mean they can cover enormous distances from the Pacific and beyond?
DONOGHUE: Yeah, oh, absolutely. Well, yeah, Ariti who was tagged in French Polynesia has now cranked up 10,000 kilometres.
EWART: Do we know why they are doing this, I mean is this just a natural part of the process for the turtles or is there a reason why some might travel further than others?
DONOGHUE: Well, some certainly travel further than others and some species have much larger distributions than others, probably Leatherback Turtles, which are the most endangered are the ones that have the hugest range, but most turtles have pretty big ranges and it's related to the same strategy that many migratory species have, which is that you have one place where breed and another place where you do most of your feeding and those distances maybe separated by huge, those two locations maybe separated by huge distances.
And in the case of Pacific Island turtles, we've identified, thanks to the tagging program and the laborious entry and retrieval and analysis of data, we've established several different breeding sites and genetic identities for each of the species that are found in the Pacific Islands and it's a very complicated story. These are animals that have been around for hundreds-of-millions of years, most of which has been without humans around, so they've established lifestyle patterns that haven't changed in a long, long, long time.
Now, of course, with human habitation and especially the changes that climate change and other human induced causes bring, they're lives are getting much harder.
EWART: Would it be fair to say that as a result of all the technology that you now have at your disposal, that perhaps you know more about these creatures than certainly has ever been known in the past. But armed with that knowledge, does it make any easier to deal with this issue of endangerment?
DONOGHUE: That's a really good question. Having the knowledge means that it's easier to identify the solution, persuading governments first and communities and individuals after that, that if we want to hold onto these very special animals that have been around for a long time, then we have to change our ways is a much harder problem. 
Turtle has been important as a subsistence or in fact a kind of privilege diet for many parts of the Pacific Islands for many, many hundreds-of-years, and it's difficult to persuade communities that they've got to give it up or let them go. And one of the real problems with that is that essentially when a female turtle gets harvested when she's laying her eggs, what is happening there is you're actually denying the opportunity for turtles to come back in 20 to 30 years time, because that's how long it takes the animals to mature and come back to their breeding beaches.
And so what subsistence hunters and communities in the Pacific Islands see now with their turtle populations is really a snap shot of how it was 25, 30 years ago and a lot of communities are beginning to realise that they need to change their ways if they want to have turtles for their grandchildren, but in some cases, it may already be too late. And you have the added problem of climate change and there are two big problems there, one is that the temperature at which turtle eggs are incubated, determines very much whether they're male or female, so the warmer the sand is, the more likely the eggs are to be female, and then once the sand reaches 34 degrees the eggs are likely to die. So we may see a feminising of turtle populations and we don't know what the right optimal balances between males and females is and the other problem is that with climate change and increasing storm surges and more severe cyclones, a lot of the breeding beaches get washed away or are changed such that they they're no longer suitable as breeding beaches.
So the poor old turtles have got a real problem and that's why the more technology we have and the more information we have, the better armed we are to try and address those problems and get them through the next couple of decades.

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