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Across the Gulf; Saving Sea Turtles in Tecolutla, Mexico

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Hello! My name is Jessica Miller. I am an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina, where I just completed my sophomore year. I am majoring in biology and I intend to eventually pursue a career in research. Growing up in a small town in South Carolina, I developed a deep interest in science and knew I wanted to do something with animals. This summer I am traveling to Mexico to participate in an amazing study abroad program that will help with the conservation of endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, as well as provide valuable information on the degree of marine debris found in the area.

On May 8th, I traveled to Mexico for the first time in my life. While many people travel to the country to explore the sites and relax on the beaches, my intentions are slightly different. I have an awesome opportunity to conduct research with several other students in my study abroad program. What exactly is it that we will be researching? Sea turtles, of course! More specifically, the primary focus of my voyage is the conservation of the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle. These turtles are endangered and quite unique as well.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are relatively small by sea turtle standards. They usually only grow to be about 3 feet long with a shell that is about 2 feet long. They are also one of the few sea turtles to nest during the day. Kemp’s ridley sea turtles also have a limited nesting habitat. They only nest along the Gulf of Mexico, which highlights one of the many reasons the Gulf is so important; and why the condition of its beaches is so important as home to a variety of marine organisms that do not exist anywhere else. More information on the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, along with other work being done in Tecolutla, can be found at the Tecolutla Turtle Preservation Project.

A variety of anthropogenic factors impact Kemp’s – including major issues such as egg poaching oil spills, and incidental capture in fishing equipment. Egg poaching is very serious, because when extensive enough, it can wipe out generations because it is so easy for people to find turtle nests and take the unguarded eggs. Accidental capture by fishing boats is often caused by boats, particularly shrimping boats, drag large nets along the ocean floor. Sea turtles can unintentionally get caught and drown if they can’t escape.  Fortunately, modern regulations require U.S. shrimpers to use what are known as Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), which have significantly reduced turtle mortality in American waters.  However, regulations, implementation and enforcement are sometimes not as strong in other countries where turtles may feed or migrate through.

Our research is attempting to assess a variety of aspects of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that will hopefully aid in the management and eventual recovery of the species.  One of the projects involves trying to tag every turtle that comes ashore to nest in a 10km stretch of beach in the southern Gulf of Mexico.  We hope to be able to use these tags to eventually answer questions about turtle nesting biology, number of turtles and nesting site fidelity at this beach.  When we tag a turtle we also take a small tissue sample that will be used, along with samples from other areas, to genetically analyze the population structure – do Kemp’s exist as one large mixed population or are there more than one smaller separate populations.  This information is obviously critical to properly conserving the species.

I also have my own project, with the help of the Ocean Conservancy.  As part of their International Coastal Cleanup we are initiating a project to try to quantify the amount of marine debris present on the beach. Most people are already aware that marine debris is a global issue that can be detrimental to ecosystems. However, it is easy to forget that the coastline and its beaches and estuaries are part of the marine environment, too – and just as heavily affected by drifting debris as the open ocean. The impact of all of this debris, most of which I have seen has been plastic, on various organisms is less clear.  There are a variety of ways one could use to try to quantify the debris on the beach but I have been using dune to water-line transects divided into one meter square sections.  We have set up these transects in several places and are in the process of trying to determine just how much debris there is.  The data I collect will be used to get a better indication of the condition of the beach in Tecolutla. Hopefully it will be used to identify major concerns to the beach’s well-being and provide information that can then be used to create solutions to those problems.

While I have been trying to get a feel for the amount of pollution, our Mexican colleagues, Vida Milenaria, work tirelessly to try to educate the public about the hazards of marine debris for sea turtles.  Everyday they give free talks to tourists about sea turtles in general, including their interactions with marine pollution. In addition to their work to educate they are the ones responsible for relocating and protecting nests throughout the nesting season. They have been protecting this beach for 40 years and are a valuable source of information for our work.

Before leaving, we are also going to conduct a beach cleanup. It is only a small and temporary fix to the issue of marine debris, but every little bit helps.

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