Sea Turtles of Belize

Belize is a country famous for its amazing coral reef, which means, at times, other notable features of the environment can be overlooked. Such is the case with the sea turtle; it may not be common knowledge that the country is graced by the presence of one of the world's most endangered marine species. Three varieties of sea turtles (green, hawksbill, and loggerhead) nest in Belize and are regularly located between the coast and the barrier reef. In Belize, as well as across the globe, sea turtles face many threats, in fact, two out of three of the species found in Belize are considered "Endangered" by the World Conservation Union.

Sea turtles are drawn to Belize because of the ideal feeding and nesting grounds. Although they spend their entire lives in the ocean, sea turtles return to sandy beaches to lay their eggs. As air-breathing reptiles covered with impermeable skin, sea turtles are one of the few marine species that are suited for terrestrial life. It is the shelled egg that demands that the turtles nest be laid on land; if the eggs were laid in water, the air-breathing embryo would drown. Females only come onto land for the nesting process, an event that requires incredible exertion.

After a long journey to land, the female sea turtle makes a long trek up the beach to lay her eggs. She chooses a well-protected area, above the high tide line, and begins the arduous process of digging the nest. She will lay up to one hundred eggs that will incubate for 30-60 days before hatchlings emerge and make the treacherous trip down the beach and to the sea.

There are a number of natural threats sea turtles face. Even before the eggs hatch, they fall prey to predators such as wild dogs, raccoons, skunks, and birds that feed on the eggs. Those who make it to the hatchling phase still have to contend with predators found in and out of the sea. At the adult phase, some sea turtles are inflicted with a potentially fatal tumor disease known as marine turtle fibropapilloma, the cause of which is still unknown. These, of course, are only the natural threats that sea turtles face those caused by humans are far greater in number and pose a more significant threat.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
In coastal communities around the world, including Belize, harvesting of turtle eggs for sale and consumption still occurs. Some communities dependent on egg harvesting for their livelihood, such as those in Costa Rica, are legally allowed to harvest a percentage of the nests; this is not the case in Belize. Another threat is the incidental capture and drowning of turtles in gill nets, shrimp trawls, and long lines. Today, shrimp trawlers that export their produce to the USA are required to have a Turtle Excluding Device, but these are often incorrectly installed. Finally, the construction of sea walls, piers, tourist developments, and residencies, coupled with the use of dredging, anchoring, and waste disposal, causes major destruction to sea turtle habitat.

Sea turtles found on the North Ambergris Caye nesting beach (Robles Point to Rocky Point) have been afforded some protection under the Ambergris Caye Master Plan. Due to its close vicinity to Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, a conservation program has been developed and is overseen by the reserve staff. Thanks in large part to research collected by biologist Greg Smith (also a Green Reef Board Member), there is a record of species population in this area. Currently, 40-70 loggerhead nests are lain annually, as well as several green turtle nests. These populations have decreased considerably compared to years past. Only with the enforcement of regulations, establishment of additional protected areas, and increased public awareness, do the sea turtles of Belize ever have a chance of fully recovering.

Check out Reef Brief next week when the phenomenon of coral bleaching is covered. If you have a Reef Brief topic idea, please contact Green Reef at 2833.

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