More than 9,000 olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) have been born on one of Ecuador’s beaches in the course of recent months, in an explosion of life in the province of Esmeraldas under the protection of the Ministry of the Environment.
The turtles were born on Las Palmas beach, located in Esmeraldas province, on the border with Colombia, during the 2020-2021 period, the Ministry reported this Friday.
Through daily monitoring and control, officials from the Manglares Estuario Río Esmeraldas Wildlife Refuge had identified 121 nests in that period.
Since May 2020, “these marine species arrived at Las Palmas beach to spawn, making Las Palmas the beach in the country with the highest nesting record,” said the Ministry.
To protect the life of the newborns, “the experts apply signaling and control processes, in addition to strict measures to avoid the approach of tourists or animals that could affect the reproductive cycle,” he adds.
Olive ridley turtles are the smallest sea turtles in South America ,with an average length of 65 centimeters (about 26 inches), rarely exceeding 76 centimeters (30 inches) and they weigh approximately 45 kilograms (99 lbs).
It is a carnivorous species that feeds on fish, crabs, snails, oysters, and jellyfish. It also consumes seaweed.
Olive ridley turtles are classified as a vulnerable species on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The conservation project on Las Palmas is supported by technical and logistical support from Wild Aid Latino, the German GIZ Cooperation, Conservation International, the Coastal Marine Project, and the PUCE and Luis Vargas Torres Technical Universities.
The work plan of the park rangers of the so-called Manglares Estuario Río Esmeraldas Wildlife Refuge, includes the “gathering of information on the number of arrivals, identification, marking of nests of released hatchlings and percentage of mortality,” the Ministry reported.
Underwater cleaning, maintenance, relocation if necessary and monitoring of identified nests are also carried out, as well as days of sterilization of domestic animals in the area.
Manabi sees historic leatherback turtle hatching
About 50 leatherback turtles hatched until this weekend in the north of Manabí province, according to members of the Contamos Contigo Ecuador foundation, which took care of the nests of this species. This is an historic hatching since there have been no births of this turtle registered in the area in the four decades since monitoring began.
This was the third time that leatherback turtles have nested off the Ecuadorian coasts. On the two previous occasions, 2015 and 2017, the eggs did not hatch, which is why the Ministry of the Environment made “all efforts to ensure that the nest successfully completes its incubation process.”
Minister of the Environment, Paulo Proaño, explained that on Saturday they registered the birth of 38 leatherback turtles, whose nest was identified on the beach of Punta Bikini, near the beach of San Clemente, belonging to the Sucre canton.
“For the first time 38 leatherback turtles hatch on Punta Bikini beach in Manabí. Thanks to the support of our park rangers and the technical assistance of the Wild Aid Latino Foundation and non-governmental organizations,” the minister wrote.
The global species protection organization Wild Aid, together with the non-governmental organizations GIZ from Germany and the Contamos Contigo Ecuador Foundation, in coordination with the Ministry of the Environment, are part of the Sea Turtle Conservation project on the coast of Ecuador.
A second leatherback turtle nest, near this first hatching, is also being monitored and it is expected that in early March more than 80 eggs of this species—considered vulnerable within the classification of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—will hatch.
Nests had been discovered in late 2020
The Ministry and environmental groups have been monitoring these leatherback turtles since they were discovered in late November. The nests were found by the Fundación Contamos Contigo Ecuador
At that time, staff from the Isla Corazón and Fragata Wildlife Refuge applied nest protection protocols, which consists of placing a security perimeter around the nests and placing a temperature monitor to for surveillance.
The leatherback turtle is the largest turtle on the planet. It lives in temperate tropical, subtropical and sub-arctic waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, and can measure up to 3 meters (almost 10 feet) and weigh up to 1 ton (2,000 lbs.).
Like the olive ridley turtle, the leatherback turtle is currently listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Vulnerable, while in the eastern Pacific it is critically endangered.
The pandemic may have played a role in turtle hatchings
While scientists have no way to prove the theory, some suspect that the lack of activity on Ecuador’s beaches during the pandemic may have played some role in these recent hatchings.
Ecuador has recorded nesting of four of the seven species of sea turtles in the world. Another has been seen in the territorial sea. Those that spawn their eggs in the country do so in 41 points. Some of the towns where they normally arrive are Las Palmas, in Esmeraldas; Crucita and Puerto López, in Manabí; Chipipe and Montañita, in Santa Elena, and Engabao, in Guayas .
“The turtles return to where they were born and only 5% of those that are born survive and grow. It takes between 16 and 20 years to reach reproductive age, ”says Jorge Samaniego, Conservation Officer for the Marine Program of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Ecuador.
The dangers are less when they arrive at beaches that are within the marine-coastal protected areas, but they face more threats when they arrive at the places where they were born and find the geography adulterated due to the growth of the towns.
Bright white lights can disorient the hatchlings that advance towards these points, believing that it is the sea. Baby turtles mistake white artificial light for moonlight, according to studies.
The noise of engines and tourists on the beaches can also affect them, says Franklin Ormaza, professor at the Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (Espol).Sounds are transported least efficiently through the air, he explains, but the opposite happens through sand or soil and then water.
“Tourists make a noise that perhaps does not impact us, but at that frequency, intensity and decibels it passes thru the sand and water, and in the latter mechanical wave travels much faster and at a greater distance. There are beings that have a greater sensitivity, among them, turtles. The light also distracts them, imagine the noise of the engines,” adds Ormaza.
An unpublished study that measured the impact of COVID-19 on the coast of Manta, Salinas and Galapagos due to the cancellation of tourism, includes a survey of people who live on the edge of the beach. The results indicate that 97-99% of those consulted agree that the seas have improved notably during confinement. “These waters have been renewed.”
In fact, during the pandemic 17% of those surveyed have seen humpback whales, sharks and dolphins close to shore, as well as stingrays, turtles and other species.
“The main plausible reason is the decrease in noise level,” says Ormaza, one of the study authors.
Samaniego says that cars that enter the beaches also hurt the turtle populations because they compact the sand, which slows the hatching of the eggs. “As they come to spawn where they were born, they find nesting sites imprisoned either by vehicles or infrastructure or the same tidal activity that has undermined the area,” says Samaniego.
He says that people do have empathy for the species and when they learn about nests, fr the most part, they want to help.
“Domestic animals also destroy nests, but now there is more awareness. In places like San Lorenzo, in Manta, it has already become a tourist attraction, just like in Playa Rosada.”
The turtles that Ecuador hosts
The five species of sea turtles registered in Ecuador are:
- The loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta). Conservation status: ‘Vulnerable’. It has been observed in the territorial sea without a nesting record on the country’s coasts.
- The olive ridleyturtle (Lepidochelys olivacea). Conservation status: ‘Vulnerable’. Generally nests on continental coasts and barrier islands in tropical areas between June and November, frequently in places with relatively high humidity, near river mouths.
- The Green turtle (Chelonia mydas). Conservation status: ‘Vulnerable’. It usually chooses beaches with very strong waves and nests between mid-October and mid-March. They can be beaches of variable size with gently sloping dunes and vegetation and medium grain sand.
- The Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). Conservation status: ‘Critically Endangered’. They tend to nest in places that are difficult to access, and among the vegetation of the upper part of the beach between November and March. They prefer beaches with medium-grained sand (it provides the necessary stability to maintain humidity and temperature in the nests during embryonic development).
- The Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). Conservation status: ‘Vulnerable’. It prefers beaches of medium or low waves with a steep slope and of short width, generally they are beaches of volcanic origin, with open access without barriers at the bottom, which it reaches in January and February.