Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Fiji's first satellite turtle tagging

Feature story by Jone Niukula(The National Trust of Fiji) & Sainivalati Navuku (WWF Fiji Country Programme)

12 February 2008. Attempts over the last 2 years to locate and satellite tag a nesting turtle in Fiji bore fruit in January this year. The collaborative effort between the National Trust of Fiji (NTF), the community of Yadua, SPREP (Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme), NOAA (National Ocean & Atmospheric Administration) and WWF has been the climax of on-going efforts over the past years to protect an endangered cultural icon.© WWF Fiji / Sanivalati Navuku. Yadua park ranger Pita Biciloa on the right with Josaia Sukaloa taking measurements of the nesting hawksbill in the background.

Yadua community celebrates turtle tagging: North east of Yadua Taba island (famous iguana sanctuary) on a secluded beach locally known as Talice, a nesting hawksbill turtle was located. The turtle was spotted by the National Trust officer, Jone Niukula, and other members of the team as they made their way to an adjacent beach to await nesting turtles and carry out research work. This was the final attempt during this nesting season, to locate and satellite tag a hawksbill nester, a first for Fiji.

The sight of the turtle crawl tracks on the beach triggered a wave of excitement amongst the research team.

Pita Biciloa, Yadua Taba park ranger maneuvered his boat in an attempt to channel through a small passage to get to Talice. This was a difficult task that demanded accuracy and skill, especially when maneuvering a loaded punt against storm waves that were battering the beach.

Against all odds the team managed to secure the boat ashore, their excitement and enthusiasm fuelled even more, as they approached the turtle crawl tracks on the beach and heard loud “swooshes” – the sound of sand being scattered as the hawksbill turtle began to dig its nest.

The sound of storm waves crashing on the beach, as if to applaud and cheer on the turtle and the far away lighting on the horizon as darkness began to swallow the earth was the most majestic greeting to this ancient sea reptile as it crawled up on to land to nest after decades of navigating the seas. This (nesting) is the only time that turtles are found on land.

It is highly possible that the 88.8cm hawksbill turtle is a hatchling of Yadua returning after more than 25 years to the beach of her birth to transfer her genetic code into the future.

The hawksbill was named ‘Marama ni Yadua’ by the villagers who expressed great emotion at seeing the turtle lay it’s eggs and with the attachment of the satellite tag, commented that it would be an unforgettable experience for them and the community of Yadua. A small church service was also conducted before the turtle was released into the sea with the hope to see it return to Yadua in the years to come.

Fiji’s first satellite tagged turtle: The excitement generated out of locating the nesting turtle on Yadua Taba stems out of the fact that this is Fiji’s first ever satellite tagged turtle. It has become increasingly difficult to find nesting turtles in Fiji, hence the team reacted promptly and set off to Yadua with the satellite tag donated by SPREP.

Turtles are known to nest (lay eggs) from November through to March. Thus, over the holiday period, several other teams were conducting nesting beach work around Fiji including the Mamanuca group, Koro Island and Yadua Taba.

These surveys are a part of Fiji’s Sea Turtle Recovery Plan – a document developed by various stakeholders to address key threats that are contributing to the decline of turtle populations in Fiji.

Implementing these activities has been greatly assisted by the funds that were raised through the 2007 Inaugural Turtle Ball. Marama ni Yadua has been transmitting signals since the satellite tag attachment and the team expects to receive a plotted map by February.

Around the region, satellite telemetry work has enabled several Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTs) like Samoa, Cook Islands, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia to track the migration of turtles that had nested on their beaches. Several of these telemetry results illustrate a westward trend to migration, with turtles tagged in 3 of the countries / territories listed above migrating to Fiji. Fiji’s healthy seagrass meadows and coral reefs are ‘hotspots’ for turtles to feed.

One famous illustration of this type of work was the migration of Lady Vini – a female hawksbill turtle tagged in Samoa in March 2006 and then moved through the EEZ’s (Exclusive Economic Zones) of 6 PICTs before entering Fiji’s in October 06 where the signal then died.

Editor’s Note:

For several years now, turtle migrations have been tracked through various tagging methods including titanium flipper, passive internal transponder (PIT) or satellite tags. Titanium flipper tags are the more commonly employed method as it is relatively inexpensive. However, data retrieval is entirely dependant upon the serial numbers being reported to the relevant authorities by those who come across turtles carrying these flipper tags. Based on these reports, authorities are then able to plot the turtles path of migration.

While being more expensive, using satellite telemetry to track the migration of turtles during the 2006 Year of the Sea Turtle, SPREP facilitated the satellite tagging of turtles in Samoa, American Samoa, French Polynesia and were working with Fiji to do the same. Perhaps the most famous of those satellite tagged turtles was Lady Vini – a hawksbill nester tagged out of Samoa in March (06) and arrived in Fiji in October (06) after having swum through the EEZs of 6 other Pacific Island countries including Samoa, American Samoa, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Wallis & Futuna. Unfortunately, the signal was lost shortly after her arrival in Fiji.

More photos can be obtained by request. A satellite map will be available in the coming month.

WWF South Pacific | Fiji's first satellite turtle tagging

No comments: