PHILIPSBURG:--- The sea turtle nesting season of 2019 showed the presence of all three nesting species on our beaches; leatherback, green and hawksbill nets were found, however, their beach habitat and survival are severely threatened on St. Maarten. Sea turtle nests were recorded on Gibbs Bay, Mullet Bay, Dawn Beach, Simpson Bay and Guana Bay Beach, showing a slight increase compared to recorded nests the last three years, however, numbers of nests per season are worrisome and much lower than ten years ago. Sea turtles foraging and nesting on St Maarten experience serious threats to their survival, especially the previous year caused a high mortality rate among the species due to boat strikes, beach destruction, and trash.
“Last year we have reported on several dead sea turtles, five of them died due to boat strikes in and around the Simpson Bay Lagoon area, two sea turtles died in our trash, ending up entangled in a chair and fishing gear, also an additional amount of sea turtles died on the French side. Sea turtles are vulnerable species, when they forage they need to come up to the surface in order to breath and they need an undisturbed beach to produce a successful nest. Frequent beach driving activities causes sea turtle eggs to crush and beach constructions leave no room for sea turtles to nest. We are seriously concerned about the survival chances of our sea turtle population and urge to increase and enforce the protection level of our precious sea turtles” explained Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern Nature Foundation’s Manager.
The Nature Foundation is the designated authority to monitor sea turtle nests and the population on St. Maarten, since last year they increased their patrols in order to assess the nesting population trend. “Verified sea turtle nests appear to be scarce the past years and the hatching success of our nests seem to be very low, indicating disturbances on the beach such as beach driving or habitat destruction, however, extended research and funding is needed to establish significant nesting trends for St. Maarten sea turtles in the coming years” explained Nature Foundation’s Manager. Last year, the Foundation received assistance from Environmental Monitoring student Saskia Werner, her report about sea turtle nesting on St. Maarten has been published on the Nature Foundation website.
The Nature Foundation is vigorously taking measurements to decrease the threats for sea turtles on St. Maarten, awareness is being created and involved stakeholders have been contacted in the last months. The Foundation received assistance from the VROMI policy department and is working on several acts in order to ensure sea turtles for future generations. “Quads, cars and larger machines are often seen driving on our beaches, which could damage or even completely destroy sea turtle nests. We are actively working on blocking the access to our beaches for vehicles together with the help of the VROMI department of infrastructure, hopefully more beaches will be closed for accidental and intentionally beach driving, such as on Kimsha beach” continued Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern.
All sea turtles species are protected by the SPAW Protocol and the Nature Conservation Ordinance St. Maarten Articles 16 and 17, therefore it is illegal to kill, wound, capture or pick up sea turtles. It is also illegal to directly or indirectly disturb their environment resulting in a physical threat or damage or to commit other acts that result in disturbance of the animal. It is forbidden to disturb, damage or destroy sea turtle nests, lairs or breeding places. Also, it is forbidden, by the same law, to pick up or to destroy the eggs of any species of the sea turtle. Needless to say that the Sint Maarten criminal code prohibits hurting animals in general. Legal action to enforce can be taken by inspectors of the Ministry of VROMI, in order to investigate and prosecute offenders disturbing or affecting sea turtles or other protected species. Recently, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, after a meeting with the Ministry of VROMI and the Nature Foundation, has expressed interest in taking up the challenge to prosecute criminal offenses regarding sea turtles and their nesting habitat. “We have met with the prosecutor to talk about the possibility to enforce the legislation of protective species. The prosecutor is supporting this, so some preparations will be started now between the Ministry of VROMI, Nature Foundation and the Public Prosecutor’s office to get this executed” stated Ildiko Gilders Policy Advisor Nature and Environment at Ministry of VROMI.
The sea turtles on St Maarten face serious threats regarding their survival, first of all sea turtles have lost most of their nesting habitats due to beach construction in the vegetation line, the location on the beach where they supposed to lay their nests. On St. Maarten beaches, houses are built actually on the beach or have been in the past, as we see on Simpson Bay Beach, forcing sea turtles to lay their nests in the danger ‘overwash’ zone of the beach, leading to a lower or no hatching success. In addition, large amounts of wastewater, including sewage, are entering the ocean affecting the marine life living in it and especially vulnerable sea turtles. Moreover, sea turtles nesting are disoriented and disturbed by beach lightening, especially hatchlings are often found ‘going the wrong way’ ending up on dangerous places, such as on the boardwalk or on the road, which happened three times in 2018, according to the Nature Foundation. To conclude, single-use plastics pollution is also a serious problem on St Maarten, trash on the beaches and in the waterways affect the sea turtle population, obstructing their already tough crawls on the beach and sea turtles are found to be entangled in the trash or ingest the harmful products. In order to ensure sea turtle populations for the future, all residents, tourists and organizations on St. Maarten could assist to be alert and by preventing additional threats to sea turtles.