Published Features

Print

Barbados Island History

Written by Roxan Kinas on .

 

ISLAND HISTORY
Print

Bellairs Research Institute Preserves Sea Turtles

Written by Roxan Kinas on .

BELLAIRS RESEARCH INSTITUTE
Turtle

 PRESERVES SEA TURTLES

turtle
It is late night. Savage waves pound Barbados' rugged Atlantic coast, smashing the surf into the craggy shoreline. One breaker casts a bulky silhouette unto remote Bath beach. Reaching the shore, the silhouette shifts from graceful swimmer to labourious plod.
A 180 pound hawksbill turtle lumbers through the heavy sand on its biennial trek to lay her eggs. Before she begins digging, however, poachers descend on her, dragging the helplessly flailing creature to a waiting van.
One outraged resident, unable to halt the abduction, calls Bellairs Research Institute to intercede. Institute Director Dr. Wayne Hunte alerts area Police who quickly trace the van's ownership, and then in an ironic twist, swoop down on the poacher's residence and lay in wait for the culprits.
This united effort thwarted the slaughter of an endangered marine turtle. Yet not so long ago, the scene would have surely ended in the slaying of a magnificent sea turtle. But the Barbados-based Bellairs Research Institute (BRI) changed that. Whether saving one sea turtle or an entire marine park, this facility has significantly influenced Barbados' ecology, and its community-based accomplishments are a source of pride for scientists there.
Bellairs launched the Sea Turtle Project in 1987, and with it a tenacious public awareness campaign that gently converted an indifferent population into a guardian community. Says Dr. Hunte, "We have seen a remarkable change in public attitude and enforcement during our twelve years of work."
The project, run jointly with Barbados' Fisheries Division, monitors and manages the nesting and hatching activities of marine turtles, and these days the campaign generates 24-hour 'sea turtle hotline' calls from the public on nesting and hatch sites. While helping to prevent poaching, the hotline helps scientists ensure nestings occur in safe locations. Poorly sited nests are relocated, and in extremely bad settings, eggs are incubated in the laboratory. Scientists also assist hatchlings emerge from the nest. Unless nests are dug, some hatchlings may not be able to free themselves from the impacted sand.
Dr. Hunte admits the project "is very rigourous and demanding," but, "it is extremely valuable because it has increased local interest in conservation, and given the strong visitor interest in this activity, it is also a working example of eco tourism."
Bellairs dates back some 45 years. Its benefactor, Commander Carlyon Bellairs, a member of British Parliament during Winston Churchill's regime, moved to Barbados and years later, after his wife's death and the onset of his own failing health, he offered his west coast beach front property to several Canadian universities as a marine research facility.
The offers, hand-written in fairly shaky script, were ignored until McGill's principal, while vacationing in Barbados, investigated the proposal. That visit led to the founding of Bellairs Research Institute of McGill University in 1954.
turtle
Bellairs serves as an educational and research base for universities and scientists across the globe. Now a collaborative institution between McGill University and the University of the West Indies (UWI), Bellairs is Canada's lone tropical teaching and research facility and the only institute of its kind in the Eastern Caribbean.
Theses and projects range from the maritime sciences and primatology to tropical agriculture, geology and archeology. Says Dr. Hunte, "One of the best features of Bellairs is the impact of problem-specific projects on the local and regional community. We play an increasing role in the advisory and training arena and this is an extension of the research conducted over the years in terms of passing on accumulated knowledge."
The Sea Turtle Project is such an undertaking. Project Coordinator Ms. Lotus Vermeer hosted a regional workshop last year in collaboration with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the National Oceanographic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA). The two American bodies funded a Caribbean initiative for tracking long range movements of post-nesting female hawksbill turtles. Six countries; Barbados, Mexico, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, St. Croix and Antigua are taking part in this satellite telemetry project.
Turtle "These turtles don't stay in the waters around their nesting habitats." Instead, Ms. Vermeer says, the four transmitter-fitted turtles from Barbados went in different directions. One ultimately went to Dominica, another to Carriacou, the third traveled to the northeast coast of Trinidad, and the fourth ventured to an area off Venezuela. When the turtles are ready to nest again in two to three years, she says, "We assume they will return to Barbados to lay."
Says Ms. Vermeer, "We are getting tremendous feedback from the community, and a lot is happening through our outreach programmes in schools and organisations. We also work closely with landscape architects and coastal property developers to make the beach line more turtle-friendly."
In fact, "Elegant Hotels Group Ltd. recently provided a generous grant to continue our monitoring and community outreach efforts and they are taking Bellairs' advice on making their beaches more turtle-friendly." The conglomerate owns five properties on the south and west coasts. The British High Commission has also provided funds for environmental awareness and public education in the secondary schools and the tourism industry.
The turtle nesting season runs from April to December and egg incubation is approximately two months. Three sea turtle species grace Barbados' waters, with two of them nesting on the shores. The hawksbill, which is critically endangered, is the predominate nester in Barbados. The leatherback also nests locally, but to a far lesser degree.. The green turtle does not nest in Barbados, but feeds in its waters. Less than one in 1000 hatchlings that reach the water actually survive to maturity (30 years) due to predators, including man.
Ms. Vermeer noted one of the big successes of the turtle project is the most recent Fisheries legislation. Enacted last year, there is now a complete moratorium on sea turtles and the harvesting of their eggs in Barbados. A grand victory, indeed, for a core group of scientists working voluntarily with sheer determination, dedication and a love of the environment to drive them.