On August 2nd, 2012, the first of five satellite tags was deployed on the carapace of a nesting green turtle at Guanahacabibes National Park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, located on the westernmost tip of Cuba. Named Harriet, this turtle along with its four brethren, is being tracked from space for the first time. This research is revealing clues on the origin and life history of a significant population of green turtles (Chelonia mydas), whose migratory patterns, according to basic research already conducted, could range as far as Florida, Central America or even South America.
These tags were deployed by a team of researchers from the Centro de Investigaciones Marinas (Center for Marine Research)[CIM] of the University of Havana. The Guanahacabibes Sea Turtle Monitoring Project, is a Project of the The Ocean Foundation’s Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program. It is a collaborative effort between the Ocean Foundation’s Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program and CIM. Since 1999 scientists have collected data on a population of up to 1,200 nesting green turtles which was unknown to science before this project began. Female turtles lay their eggs along seven nesting beaches at Guanahacabibes Peninsula, a wild, relatively uninhabited coastal protected area.
The Project has not only accumulated critical annual data on nest size, nesting frequency, environmental impacts such as sand temperature and the impact of hurricanes for almost 15 years but is helping piece together the migration patterns of the broader Western Atlantic green turtle population and informing policy decisions by Cuban and regional governments to protect sea turtle populations from poaching, incidental catch in fishing nets and egg collection by coastal communities. Highly migratory species, sea turtles spend their life stages in a wide range of ocean habitats.
Guanahacabibes Sea Turtle Project
The Guanahacabibes Sea Turtle Project has provided a continuous stream of basic nesting data on a green turtle population that nests along an important marine pathway for Western Atlantic green turtles. Guanahacabibes, located on the westernmost tip of Cuba, is located between Mexico and Florida, both home to important turtle habitats and migration routes.
While simple in focus and execution, monitoring efforts at Guanahacabibes are critical in understanding and protecting this nesting population. Every nesting season (May-September), University of Havana students spend two-week shifts in the field where they patrol seven nesting beaches at night for nesting females. They take vital measurements of nesting animals and measure the size, location, temperature and depth of nests. In some cases where nests have been laid in sites vulnerable to surge or tidal flooding, they are relocated to places more conducive to hatching. The satellite tagging program was initiated this year and will continue with new tags every nesting season. It is allowing the Project to determine additional information about where these turtles come from and what they do after nesting at Guanahacabibes.
In honor of our partners, the five animals were named Harriet, Conchita, Eliosa, Elaine and Maria Elena. The latter was named after CIM’s former director, Maria Elena Ibarra Martin, who after a long career in Cuban marine conservation passed away in 2009( http://oceandoctor.org/cuba-loses-its-mother-ocean/) The tracks can be viewed in real time at: www.seaturtle.org/tracking/index.shtml?project_id=539.
Interestingly, two of the females, Harriet and Conchita are moving toward Florida. Could this mean they are residents of both Cuba and Florida? This highlights a theme commonly preached by The Ocean Foundation that Cuba and Florida are closely linked biologically. In addition to turtles, birds, larval fish and lobster and even manatees are known to migrate between Florida and Cuba. But with an embargo in place between the US and Cuba, how can we continue to protect our own marine resources without learning about those of Cuba?
By determining their movements, international and national policy decisions can be accurately informed to ensure their protection through a potential combination of fisheries management, the establishment of protected zones and educational campaigns that inform local communities to protect instead of harvest these animals. The Ocean Foundation is raising funding to acquire five more tags to deploy in 2013. Please visit (www.oceanfdn.org/ocean-conservation-projects/listings/cuba-marine-research-and-conservation) for more information about the Ocean Foundation’s work in Cuba