Due to an 80% global decline of population size in just three generations, Hawksbill turtles are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). Incidental catch in fisheries, targeted hunting for tortoiseshell and egg harvesting coastal development, degradation of marine habitats, and climate change all contribute to the massive decline in marine turtle populations around the world.
Marine turtles are facing similar threats in the Arabian region where rapid economic development takes place posing increasing pressures to the marine environment. In an effort to protect marine turtles, a number of monitoring and conservation programmes in the region are already in place mostly focusing on the protection of hawksbill nesting sites. However, understanding the migration patterns and the location of important turtle habitats at sea is essential for the design of effective conservation strategies.
The biology and life cycle of the Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
Like other turtle species, female Hawksbill turtles emerge from the sea to nest typically every two to four years. During the nesting season, a female may nest up to four times, burying more than 100 eggs in each nest. After nesting, the adult female turtles return to their feeding grounds. A number of weeks later, hatchlings emerging from the sand, crawl down the beach and once they reach the water, they swim for one to two days in what is known as a ‘swimming frenzy’ to get as far offshore as possible. The temperature of the sand dictates the gender of the hatchlings, so in cooler temperatures, male hatchlings emerge from the nest, while in warmer temperature females emerge. Adult males live their entire lives at sea, never emerging from the water except to breathe. Marine turtles are vulnerable to anthropogenic impacts at the various marine and coastal habitats they use throughout their lifecycle. Therefore, for conservation measures to be effective it is necessary to have solid understanding of the biological needs of marine turtles.
The Marine Turtle Conservation Project
The Marine Turtle Conservation Project was launched by EWS-WWF in April 2010, to identify the Hawksbill turtle migration patterns and locate their feeding grounds in the Gulf using satellite tracking technology.
The project aimed to raise awareness of the needs of these animals at a regional level, identify their feeding grounds and migration patterns and share tracking data with relevant authorities to contribute to the development of a regional marine turtle conservation plan.
Over three years 75 female hawksbill turtles were tagged in UAE, Oman, Qatar and Iran by the turtle tagging team at EWS-WWF and the project’s scientific and country partners.
The 75 turtles were tagged using satellite tracking transmitters that were fitted to the top of the turtle’s shell in a painless process and secured using a combination of fibreglass and resin. This transmitter sent a signal when the turtle surfaced to breathe giving the conservation team the location of that turtle on a map.
Using the latest technology, the Marine Turtle Conservation Project, with its region-wide partners, worked to fill knowledge and data gaps in the Arabian region: providing a better understanding of the distribution of these animals and in doing so, highlighting important turtle areas at sea and the threats that overlap with these areas.
The Marine Research Foundation, Malaysia, is the scientific advisor to the Marine Turtle Conservation Project and the regional country partners of the project are:
• Emirates Marine Environment Group (EMEG)
• Environment & Protected Areas Authority - Sharjah (EPAA)
• Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD)
• Ministry of Environment & Climate Affairs
• Environment Society of Oman (ESO)
• Ministry of Environment
• Qatar University
• Ras Laffan Industrial City
• Wildlife & Aquatic Affairs Bureau of Iran
Project Findings and recommendations
The results of the Marine Turtle Conservation Project present the first comprehensive understanding of post nesting migrations, feeding grounds and behaviour by hawksbill turtles in the Arabian region. The data from the 75 turtles tagged as part of this project was incorporated with 15 additional turtle’s data, kindly contributed by regional partner institutions’ other tracking projects, and the resulting analysis was a result of all 90 data sets combined.
1. Using four years of tracking data has assisted the project in identifying vital areas (known as Important Turtle Areas, ITAs) that turtles use across the region for when they feed and migrate, as potential conservation areas and can help refine regional management actions. The project has provided the best available scientific information supporting the identification of these areas that include:
- The southern tip of Masirah Island, Oman;
- The waters of the southwest Gulf shared by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE, around the Ghuweifat Peninsula, Western Region;
- Northern Qatar, around Fuwairit and Ras Riken;
- Areas within the central Gulf along the Iranian, Qatari and Emirati maritime border;
- And the waters around Ras Al Hadd, Oman as a key migratory route
2. The project has also identified a behavioural response to the annual rise in summer sea surface temperatures, with a peak during the project of 34.9C, where turtles migrate to cooler waters during the summer months. This response provides a good case study for scientists providing insights on the potential impact changing global climate conditions could have on turtles in other parts of the world. The project has also recognised the potential regional threat of incidental capture by the fisheries industry has on turtles, with two of the tracked turtles being likely victims to this threat.
As a result of the projects’ research and subsequent findings, the project team and partners have put forward recommendations for consideration at national and regional level:
- The area south west of Masirah Island in Oman, and selected areas in Qatar and UAE need to be considered for significant conservation and management.
- Dedicated conservation actions and best practices aiming to reduce impacts of key man-made threats are important to be implemented in areas where formal and exclusive protection might not be feasible.
- Further studies are needed so as to improve the information we have on turtle distribution, as well as the potential overlaps with key threats that will in turn help prioritise and enable focused conservation actions.
- In order to improve our understanding on turtle conservation needs, a regional collaborative approach is important to be continued and strengthened allowing for data sharing and the use of common methodologies to implement scientifically robust conservation initiatives and ultimately better protect our shared marine environment.
Adopt a Turtle
Turtle adoption packs can be purchased from these outlets to support EWS-WWF’s marine conservation work:
EWS-WWF Abu Dhabi Office (ADCCI Bldg)
Al Boom Dive Centres
Centro Al Manhal Abu Dhabi by Rotana
Desert Island Resort & Spa by Anantara
Dubai International Financial Centre
Journey Toys Trading
Lime Tree Café
The Change Initiative
The Green Eco Store (Ekotribe)
Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas