Conserving Dominica's Sea Turtles

Latest update January 17, 2019 Started on October 28, 2018
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Our project works to understand sea turtles and the habitat they depend on and protect endangered nesting leatherback sea turtles, the worlds largest reptile, from poaching. To accomplish this, we work with local communities to patrol nesting beaches, conduct research into turtle movement and behavior, and implement education programs on ocean conservation in schools near nesting beaches.


We're exploring reefs around Dominica documenting sea turtle foraging habitat damage since Hurricane Maria. Storm surge left many corals and sponges damaged. Hawksbill turtles rely on these sponges as their primary food source. The marine reserve is also an important habitat for juvenile turtles because of the reliability of a healthy reef and sponge ecosystem.

We combine visual observations with an educational program known as Floating Classrooms. Floating Classrooms enables students in Grades 4 and 5 across Dominica to learn about the sea turtles and marine life that share their island home. Each year participating students help collect data on coral reef health with an experiential learning research cruise where they deploy drop cameras, listen with hydrophones and use plankton nets to look at the diversity of life in their own backyard. All while helping protect sea turtles and the ocean environment!

October 28, 2018
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In The Field

Yesterday I met with Dominica’s newly formed organization to coordinate all things climate. Dominica aims to be the world's first climate resilient country. The org is CREAD (Climate Resilient Execution Agency for Dominica). We had a great meeting yesterday and it ended with me sitting down with them today to outline a blue vision for a green dominica.


Basically, how do you plan for economic growth, conservation, and climate change.

Simple, right?

There was a lot of sharing of my various notes and proposals. Next week I’m off to a meeting with the Clinton Global Initiative to talk about how Dominica can be climate resilient and see if we can get people to invest in this big picture vision.

Then more meetings! I joined a meeting with CREAD and UNDP on Dominica’s blue economy. The “blue economy” concept aims to fuel economic growth and improve the livelihoods of Dominca’s residents by using ocean resources, while still protecting and preserving the ecosystem. So it’s on par with what we’re trying to do with our conservation work.

I’m hoping that we can collaborate with CREAD to make lasting changes for the betterment of Dominca’s communities AND its natural resources.

After that it was back to Rosalie Bay to brief Beverly and Oscar on all the progress.

Not exactly thrilling fodder for an OE update, but it’s important to set up the logistics of these conservation efforts before we head back to the states.

It’s my last day in Dominica today. I leave tomorrow, and I’m down to my last three mangos! Fruit just doesn’t taste the same back home as it does in Dominica.

Throughout this trip I’m pretty sure I’ve driven the equivalent of around the island at least 12 times. It’s been a lot of work, but again, it’s important. I’m excited to come back in March for our patroller training, and to see how things are going.

Until next time!

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Our team did cleaned up the waters near one of our eating beaches yesterday. We removed a ton of plastic debris, including a number of "biodegradable" bags.


I’m always disheartened when I find bags like this; they’re marketed as good for the planet because they are biodegradable, so when people use them they feel like they’re contributing to a cleaner environment.

But what really happens is that these bags just break down into microplastics, which end up everywhere from the ocean to inside animals bodies – including humans. Scientists have found microplastics in increasingly alarming places like shellfish, sea salt, and even beer.

So here’s your reminder, if you need one: use reusable bags instead of any kind of plastic one, even the “biodegradable” kind.

We certainly can’t control whether or not everyone uses reusable bags (though we can strongly recommend it) but what we can control is what to do with the plastics that end up on Dominica's beaches.

Yesterday three of us put in about 30-40 minutes of effort and recovered about 50 pounds of plastic in a tiny area.

I’d love for there to be less plastic on the beach, but right now I’m just grateful that we have the team to go out and clean up what we can. It’s a step in the right direction, and it’s on par with our values of protecting and conserving the natural marine resources of Dominica, and ensuring prosperity for all the economic sectors which depend on Dominica’s waters.

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Yesterday we said goodbye to Emily, our intrepid data manager, ROV feather manager, and Jane-of-all trades as she had to head back to the US. After dropping her off at the airport I drove to the other side of the island to meet our patrol teams in Rosalie and La Plain.


La plain and Rosalie are both hotspots for turtle nesting and, unfortunately, illegal hunting.

Simon, Kenny, Marvin and Pierre are our DomSeTCO patrollers at Rosalie and La Plain beaches. These guys literally put their lives on the line protecting turtles. Marvin and Pierre had to park their car in a hidden location because poachers have vandalized their car in the past.

We met to talk about our plans for this season, how we can ensure that everyone is safe at night on the beach, and how to improve how we engage our communities.

For the organization to be successful we need to make sure the patrollers are safe and that there is a plan (financial and logistical) to support them for the foreseeable future.

But how do you generate sustainable livelihoods in a country where ecotourism is particularly challenging?

For many island and coastal areas around the world, communities can rely on their beautiful natural landscape to draw tourists. Ecotourism has allowed countless communities to transition away from harvesting resources and instead learn an income by showcasing the beauty in their backyard to the world.

But on Dominica, the turtle population has declined so much that seeing a turtle isn’t exactly common. That means that these communities can’t consistently rely on turtle sightings as a way to encourage tourists to visit.

It can be difficult to justify the importance of protecting animals that don’t have an obvious economic benefit. Many endangered animals around the world face threats because humans often overlook their ecosystem role in favor of their economic value.

So our job is to find ways to protect these sea turtles even though their economic value might not be so obvious.

Fortunately, we have a passionate team that isn’t afraid to think outside the box.

Sometimes demonstrating the value of the animal is the key to conserving its population, while other times stressing the importance of a whole habitat is a way to keep endangered species safe. In our work, we combine education with creative problem solving; if Dominica residents need a consistent way to make a living and support their families, we can come up with a different method that doesn’t put sea turtles at risk.

Our plan to sell Sargassum fertilizer and driftwood could prove to be a huge economic boost for the area, and potentially employ folks from more remote communities that may otherwise consider poaching endangered sea turtles.

Conserving animals that don’t seem to have an economic value is an uphill battle, but we’re going to fight it. The first steps are making sure that our patrollers are safe, and finding ways for them to generate income for themselves, and to generate funds for the program.

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Yesterday we took a trip up to the north of Dominica to visit with the team in Londonderry. We’re setting up for the season ensuring everyone has what they need to succeed. There are lots of things to coordinate, like making sure that everyone has data sheets for recording turtle nesting and the contact information of necessary officials to confirm that any poachers caught interfering with turtle nesting face criminal prosecution.


We also spent time discussing our business planning. That miight not sound all that adventurous for a digital field journal about exploration, but it’s an important piece of maintaining financial sustainability for our program. When projects like ours can be financial stable, our efforts to protect Dominica's sea turtles can continue for years to come.

There are few things we have a lot of in Dominica: sunshine, salt water and more recently sargassum seaweed and driftwood. Sargassum seaweed seems to be building up in the area and impacting our nesting beaches. The influx of seaweed and is likely caused by climate change shifting the ocean’s currents, sending offshore algal blooms from Brazil (caused by nutrient runoff) into Caribbean waters. The beaches last nesting season were inundated with sargassum, making it very difficult for both nesting turtles to build a nests and for hatchlings to emerge from their nests after hatching.

We’re brainstorming how to use all of this sargassum to our advantage to make money for sea turtle conservation. This extra income could support the work of our 30 patrollers in addition to helping fund the science we do.

But how do you make money from washed-up (literally) seagrass? We’re planning to set up a compost station to turn the sargassum into nutrient-dense compost and fertilizer. We’ll be able to sell this fertilizer and compost to people around the island. It’s all organic so it won’t cause excess nutrient runoff (the root of this sargassum overwhelm), farmers need it, and the proceeds can benefit sea turtle community groups. It’s a win for everyone!

Hurricane María – and actually every year after hurricane season – brought us a ton of driftwood too. It seems crazy to me that such a valuable natural resource (people pay lots of money for driftwood art) is so plentiful here, and it’s just sitting around blocking animals like turtles from using the natural landscape. We’re trying to think of how we can profit off all the driftwood that comes to us every season.

Until next time,

~ Jake

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It was a largely uneventful day today, with a few exciting moments.


The AIS is online, so that’s exciting! We couldn’t quite figure out why it wasn’t working earlier today and I was about ready to give up when Vaughn, a dive instructor, started poking around with it and it suddenly came alive.

I also had a chance to teach Dan Perryman, who has played an important role in our Floating Classrooms program how to drive the openROV. We’re going to set up a time with the rest of the folks from the Floating Classrooms crew to learn.

We ran into a new obstacle today: the roof of our Domsetco boardroom collapsed in Hurricane María, and it looks like someone had broken in at some point, so the place was a mess.

Our giant inflatable whale we use for kids in our Floating Classrooms was covered in evidence of small woodland creatures (read: rat poop) and our reusable bag supply we give people to reduce plastic use was chewed into and used for something to nest.

Needless to say, much of that will have to get tossed.

Another day, another challenge – but setting up the AIS receiver in Dominica is a big win, and I’m going to focus on the positive!

We also did a little survey with the ROV a nearby reef. This reef in particular used to be a turtle habitat, as it was lush sponges for hawksbills to feed on. Since María, landslides and river runoff (logs and tons of silt, mud, sand) seems to have covered it up and is just gone.

Stay tuned for more (ever eventful) updates!

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Just a quick post since it’s 3:00am, and some small creature is rustling around. We’re staying tonight in the former home/debris field of my friend Simon. I say home-slash-debris field because his home basically blew apart in Hurricane María.


Tomorrow, we work to recover our AIS antenna and giant inflatable whale we use for an education program called Floating Classroom. More on that later.

Our whale is located what we refer to as our DomSeTCO board room. The roof collapsed and sent debris flying. Hopefully, it’s still alive so we can keep bringing it to school visits to help inspire conservation action.

Ok, whatever is rustling around out here is getting closer, so I’m just going to wrap myself in my hammock and hope it goes away.

Better status update when the sun comes up soon!

Jake

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Preparation

It’s day one on Dominica, and so far most of the day has involved logistical work. We checked on our AIS antenna that’s been offline since Hurricane María. Amazingly, while other things flew away in 200mph winds, our antenna is still standing.


We’re going to see if we can relocate the antenna to somewhere with power and internet to get it back online. This antenna is vital to collecting data that will help us understand the risks that sea turtles and large whales face of being struck by ships in transit. At the moment there is no recommended route to get into the port, so we’d like to establish routes that minimize collision risk.

I also had a chance to meet with Stephen Durand, who helps coordinate our network of turtle patrollers.

Stephen is an amazing guy that works for Dominica’s forestry division. Today we reviewed strategy for communicating our work better, and data collection processes.

It’s a lot going on at once. (A lot.)

We had one obstacle of the day: we got a flat on our way to check on the AIS antenna – ironically on a newly paved road. Fortunately, a man with a jack miraculously appeared to help. We were very grateful for the assistance, and we were back on the road in no time.

Next I traveled to Soufriere (which means, “sulfur springs”) on Dominica’s southern point. Dominica is basically the top of seven giant volcanoes. The village of Soufriere sits at the caldera of one of those volcanoes, the rim of which extends underwater. The sand can be warm to the touch because of geothermal heat, and bubbles can be viewed popping up through the wet sand.

This is is where I met meet up with Simon Walsh. Simon owns Natura Island Dive, a local dive shop. He’s also the the coordinator of an organization called Resilient Dominica or REZDM. Simon and I had a ton to catch up on, including the training process for new patrollers. We’ll be coordinating patrollers on the southwest coast of the island, as we’ve had a few poaching incidents and dogs raiding nests in that area.

We’re going to fix that this season so it doesn’t happen again!

We also “splashed” the OpenROV trident for the first time. Dominica’s coastline has dramatic drop offs underwater; for every mile you travel offshore, the ocean floor drops about 100 feet. That means that we can remain on the shoreline and still send the ROV to explore up to 100’ below the surface! The display is difficult to view in the bright Dominica sun, so we got creative and used a garbage bag as an impromptu sun shade.

Just three guys under a garbage bag on the beach oohinng and ahhing...totally normal. :)

Now we’re in the wreckage of Simon and Wendy’s home where we’ll camp out for the night. Tomorrow is meeting with Tracey who coordinates turtle patrols in Mero – it’s a family affair that involves her mom and siblings too.

Finally – and perhaps my favorite part of today – I was reunited with my favorite dog in Dominica, Amber. She’s the sweetest thing ever, and she somehow survived a hurricane outside!

Until next time,

Jake

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First time I've seen a trash bag as a sunshade ahha. Can't wait to see the video :)

Some days you’re the fish, other days you’re fish food. This week I’ve felt more like the latter.


In the span of 24 hours – just a day before I departed for Dominica – all of this happened:

• I learned that our shipping company destroyed $20,000 worth of sea turtle satellite tags because, “the shipper requested the package be destroyed if it couldn’t be delivered”. Words cannot describe how totally crazy that is.

• I discovered that my underwater camera housing has a broken latch, rendering it totally useless.

• The AIS receiver that we use to track ship traffic suddenly isn’t working. At all.

I repeat: we were just hours from departure.

So, that’s the bad news.

The good news (ok, awesome news) is that our OpenROV Trident arrived. That means we’ll be able to get some terrific Hawksbill turtle habitat data beyond the range of scuba divers, which is a major boost to our research efforts in Dominica.

Even better, having a Trident in Dominica will be a fantastic tool in our floating classroom program.

Ever since I brought my Version 1 OpenROV to Dominica years ago, I’ve had a dream to get one of these cool robots in the hands of every school across the island.

Ok, that’s a lofty goal. But if it could happen it would open up new opportunities for a whole generation of young Caribbean Ocean explorers.

Dominica is an incredible place. Just about everywhere you turn there is something amazing to explore underwater. But historically, ocean exploration has been limited to those who can afford it. That means that the folks who live on the islands (and other islands in the area) aren’t the ones doing the exploring; instead, it’s tourists and visiting researchers who are diving and taking data.

By bringing OpenROVs to the island, we have a very real potential to break down financial barriers so that more local people on these small islands can explore the ocean firsthand.

The students that are part of our floating classroom program are going to go nuts when they see this! I cannot wait to be able help them explore the amazing ocean habitat in their backyard.

Over the coming week in Dominica, we’ll be getting everything organized for this upcoming sea turtle nesting season. There’s research planning to be done, beach patrollers to coordinate, forms to copy, payroll to set up, education programs to schedule, and of course, grants to simultaneously write while we’re doing all this.

One do the most important roles in this effort is to protect sea turtle nests on Dominica’s beaches.

Dominica’s sea turtle population is small – really small, in fact. That means losing just one old female to poaching has a ripple effect for generations to come. With just one of 1,000 hatchlings makes it to adulthood, every single hatchling counts.

To keep the sea turtle nests safe, we coordinate beach patrollers to keep an eye out for poachers.

These patrollers put their lives on the line to protect sea turtles. That might sound dramatic, but my patroller friends have endured all sorts of situations in the course of their regular duties – some have even been chased off the beach by poachers wielding machetes.

I’m so appreciative of the team we have, and I know that our efforts are going to pay off when we start collecting data. Coordinating a team of 20 anti-poaching sea turtle patrollers takes a lot of effort, and involves a lot of paperwork. So in addition to the array of unexpected news, we spent today organizing binders of sighting, payroll, and nest monitoring forms for each beach team across the island. And of course, we packed. Lots and lots of packing.

And the packing isn’t over yet, so I need to get back to it and make sure my tent still has all of its parts.

More to come!

Jake

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Hi everybody!


I’m Jake Levenson, and I’m leading this team of dedicated and amazing people, all committed to protecting marine life and ensuring both people and nature thrive. I’ll make sure folks stop in to introduce themselves along the way.

I like to think of myself as just the guy behind the curtain empowering local people dedicated to conservation with the tools and expertise they need to get the job done. I’m probably less of a scientist and more of a community builder, grant writer, administrative assistant, master duct taper and general helper of getting good things done.

I first came to Dominica while working as the Whale Program Officer for the International Fund For Animal Welfare more than 10 years ago, and despite my career taking a few turns, Dominica, and its marine life, has always been a focus of my work. I guess I never really left.

This will be my 22nd trip to Dominica, although I may have lost track of the stamps in my old passport.

Over the coming few months we’ll share stories of our work protecting turtles, exploring their habitat and teaching the next generation of ocean stewards right here. Stay tuned!

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I'm Emily Kelly, a recent graduate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an aspiring marine biologist. I am thrilled to be a part of the Dominica Sea Turtle Conservation Organization (DomSeTCO) team, serving as a data manager. My past experience has been in a wide variety of subjects, including forest conservation, salt marsh monitoring and marine life conservation. Last summer I was an intern at Loggerhead Marinelife Center conducting sea turtle nesting research in Palm Beach County Florida. This opportunity provided me with great experience studying sea turtles and contributing to ocean conservation efforts. This knowledge has allowed me to contribute to improving data collection and analysis for DomSeTCO in the hopes of optimizing both the efficiency of the data and the contribution of local patrollers.


In the past year I have been helping to enter and organize past sea turtle sighting data that the patrollers in Dominica collect each nesting season. More recently I have been helping get things ready for the 2019 nesting season, which will start in March. We are aiming to standardized and improve data this year so that we can continue to monitor the sea turtle populations in Dominica and make informed decision about conservation efforts on the island.

Jake and I are making a trip down to Dominica in a few days to ensure everything is ready for this years sea turtle nesting season. We'll meet with patrollers, ensure everyone is clear on data collection, we'll deploy some sensors, and collect some habitat data where turtles have been tagged. I am excited to finally experience the island and am looking forward to my future with DomSeTCO!

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Expedition Background

With the potential to outgrow the size of a small car, and a history that pre-dates the extinction of the dinosaurs, the leatherback sea turtle is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating reptiles alive today.


Leatherbacks have been around, and largely unchanged, for over 100,000 million years. Yet despite the longevity of this species, in today’s climate, their population is declining, particularly in Dominica. While once a popular nesting ground for these sea turtles, it is estimated that as few as 20 total leatherbacks currently call this Caribbean country home.

This is where the Dominica Sea Turtle Conservation Organization (DomSeTCO) comes in. We provide community-based sea turtle conservation initiatives and population monitoring across Dominica. And while we do place a concerted effort of the wellbeing of sea turtles—their goal is to ensure the pragmatic conversation of the ocean habitats that both humans and animals depend on.

Through this work, and the satellite tagging efforts, we have discovered that leatherbacks tagged in Dominica can travel more than 11,000 miles from home. Although these sea turtles are known to travel far—swimming around 130-150 miles per day, it is customary for female turtles to return to the same beach area where they were born to nest. Unfortunately, our current climate changes are threatening this pattern, and the leatherback turtle’s ability to safely nest in this area.

It is no secret that sea turtles have long been the poster children for climate change, due to the severity of the ramifications for these animals. In the case of the leatherback turtles, beach erosion caused by increased storm frequency and intensity is now impacting nesting success for the turtles that come back to Dominica to hatch their young.

While there are current laws in place that make it illegal to kill leatherback turtles between June and September—climate change has warmed the ocean and caused the nesting season to shift earlier and earlier each year. Yet, the government is not changing along with our climate and has failed to adapt these poaching laws to accommodate this environmental shift.

However, even with these obstacles, we are proud to report there are some positive steps are being made to protect these turtles and the shores they nest on every season. At the heart of our conservation efforts is the Floating Classrooms program—an effort that has led to reduced incidence of poaching and decreased plastic use on the Island of Dominica.

First launched over a decade ago, this program is designed to help install an appreciation for the ocean in the Caribbean youth. Floating Classrooms brings young people together with animals, face to fin, while fostering a commitment to protect marine life, both in the Dominica and beyond.

These current activities, and all our initiatives are important steps not only to foster a better appreciation for leatherback sea turtles—but to save their lives. As without proactive intervention, within just a decade’s time, it is likely that Dominica could lose this prehistoric turtle all together.

Continuing the current efforts and activities, hosting community meetings, promoting anti-poaching patrols and implementing these educational and outreach efforts is essential to ensuring the conservation and protection of the leatherback sea turtle, not only in the Commonwealth of Dominica, but around the globe as well.

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Thanks for setting up this expedition Jake. Leatherbacks need all of the help they can get, especially while visiting Dominica to lay eggs. It is great to be involved in such a valuable project in learning more about these incredible creatures and helping to prevent the poaching of them. Keep up the great work!

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