Hatchling Up Close

Hatchling Up Close

With the exception of the Olive ridley (which is listed as Vulnerable), all marine turtle species found in the Caribbean are considered Endangered or Critically Endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Hawksbills are currently listed as Critically Endangered, the most imperiled designation, meaning that global populations are believed to have declined by at least 80% in the last 3 generations. We are left to imagine the scene that huge flotillas of sea turtles, described in historical accounts by early European explorers and settlers, would have created swimming the Caribbean waters several centuries ago.

Over-exploitation constitutes the primary threat to hawksbills. Historically, hawksbills have been harvested for their beautiful and highly valued carapace: tortoiseshell jewelry and trinkets are not tortoise-derived at all. Rather, tortoiseshell comes from the polished and shaped scutes that make up the hawksbill carapace. Hawksbill meat and eggs have been used for human consumption as well. International trade in tortoiseshell is now banned and many governments have passed legislation against its sale, as hawksbills are afforded protection under Appendix 1 of CITES (the Convention of the International Trade of Endangered Species).  Additional threats to hawksbills and other marine turtles include the degradation of coral reefs and nesting beaches, and unintended capture in fishing gear.

Legislation on sea turtle protection varies throughout the Caribbean. Some countries, like Barbados and, as of January 2008, Cuba, have ended all marine turtle harvest. Cuba’s moratorium was particularly positive news for sea turtles, as some 500 turtles were legally harvested there annually.  Other nations, including Antigua and Barbuda and the Commonwealth of Dominica, permit harvest of some size classes during certain times of the year. New draft fisheries regulations would grant stronger protection to Antigua and Barbuda’s marine turtles.  Long distance migrations between foraging and breeding grounds mean that international cooperation and complementary legislation are essential to the survival and recovery of the regions turtle stocks.

Hawksbill Conservation

Nesting Hawksbill

Although hawksbills are considered critically endangered and still face numerous threats, there are encouraging signs. The nesting colony at Jumby Bay has more than doubled in past couple decades, and similar trends have been reported in Barbados, Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. However, despite such promising returns, global and regional stocks remain depleted and require continued conservation efforts.

Fortunately, there are lots of ways that you can help! If you’re turtle watching, follow these turtle watching tips. Turn off beachfront lighting during nesting season and install turtle safe fixtures. Never buy products made from sea turtle parts, such as the hawksbill’s tortoiseshell, and pick up any rubbish when you visit the beach. Consider making a donation to support marine turtle research and conservation in the Caribbean. On behalf of the sea turtle community, we thank you for your commitment to marine conservation!