Sea Turtle Sanctuary
The population of green turtle (Chelonia mydas) in Poza de Nance, Sipacate, Escuintla, is probably the most important area of non-breeding habitat for this species in Central America. The green turtle population has a particular characteristic, and it is the fact that it is a turtle that does not spawn on the beaches of Guatemala, but rather takes advantage of the lagoons formed within the Chiquimulilla channel as foraging areas.
Until now, there has been no continuous monitoring effort to calculate parameters and assess the conditions of the population and its links with breeding populations in other countries. The production of various population data and the marking of individuals will provide information on this population and link it with other populations in reproductive areas to develop adequate conservation measures in both areas.
The general objective is to create awareness for the conservation of marine biodiversity in Guatemala through a permanent research and conservation program for the turtle (Chelonia mydas) in Guatemala.
2.2. Specific objectives:
- Produce biotic and physical data on the habitat of sea turtles in the Sipacate-Naranjo National Park.
- Apply standard methodologies to establish demographic data of the population in the area.
- Produce information that allows connecting local turtle populations with the different sites in other countries that they use to complete their life cycles.
- Promote the local conservation of the species through awareness activities, to various types of publics.
Four species of turtles inhabit the Pacific coast of Guatemala: Chelonia mydas, Lepidochelys olivaceae, Dermochelys coricea and Eretmochelys imbricata.
The object of this study is the “black or brown turtle”: Chelonia mydas. Some even call it a green turtle. Some authors consider that this turtle is a subspecies restricted to the eastern Pacific Ocean and that it would correspond to the subspecies Chelonia mydas agassizii, while some others define it as a different species: Chelonia agassizii. There are morphological studies that support these hypotheses, some authors such as (Okamoto and Kamekazi, 2014) although there are mitochondrial studies that disprove it (Bowen, Meylan, Ross, et al, 1992). In any case, it is recognized that the use of these names refers to synonyms of the same species (Rhodin, Van Dijk, Iverson, & Shaffer, 2010).
A thesis, carried out in Guatemala that specifically compared the genetics of the turtles of the Poza del Nance with other populations worldwide, shows that the individuals correspond to the same populations of the species that spawn in the United States, Mexico, and other areas of Central America (Chavarria, 2017), which would place the population in any case as part of the subspecies Chelonia mydas agassizii.
- Species data
This species is the largest representative of the Cheloniidae family. There is another larger species of turtle: the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), but it belongs to the Dermocheliidae family. This turtle is known worldwide as the “Green Turtle”. This name is given to him by the color of his body fat. However, some know it as “black turtle”. There is some level of confusion in the name of the species in Guatemala when it comes to the local population, where the boatmen who take the turtle to the Poza del Nance to observe refer to it as “parlama”. The parlama (Lepidochelys olivácea) is the most popular species in the area due to its habit of nesting on the beaches of Guatemala and its popularity in the collection of eggs by the local population as a source of consumption.
Chelonia mydas adults weigh between 80 and 150 cm and weigh between 100 and 225 kg (CONABIO, 2012). Data from 55 individuals captured between 2006 and 2008 average a weight of 169.5 lb (76.9 kg), with a maximum weight of 115 kg and a minimum of 23 kg (Alfaro, 2006-2008). The reported data does not present dimensions but due to the use of pounds in the content of the descriptions it is assumed that pounds were used in the study.
The individuals have a serrated beak that allows them to uproot weeds from the bottoms. Juveniles are carnivorous but feeding adults are almost exclusively herbivorous (CONABIO, 2012; Hirth, 1997). Among the seagrass species recorded as food are Zoostera sp., Thalassia sp. and Posidonia sp. (CONABIO, 2012). Hirth (1997) lists 34 species of algae identified in stomach contents, but mainly Gracilaria and Sargassum. The master plan of the Sipacate-Naranjo National Park where the Poza del Nance is located indicates that the species of algae that Chelonia mydas uses as food inside the pool is an alga from the Rhodophyta division (red algae) of the genus Gracilaria (CONAP, 2002). This information, in turn, is based on an article referring to the diet of turtles in Oaxaca (del Socorro González-Ramos, Alquicira and Fuentes-Mascorro, 2014) and on a thesis from the Universidad del Mar, also located in Oaxaca (Raymundo -Gonzalez, 2010).
Hitch (1997) indicates that the eggs have a weight that varies from 21 to 66 g (average of 47 g for a sample of 20 individuals). According to information from the regional department of the National Council of Protected Areas, during surveillance patrols, several individuals of Chelonia mydas have been observed laying eggs on the beaches of Guatemala, however, it does not have any type of record, other than verbally regard.
The turtles, for the most part, hatch again on the same beach where they were born. During their juvenile life phase, they remain passively swimming in the currents and when they reach adulthood, they swim actively in multi-specific groups to the breeding areas (Hirth, 1997).
Different ages have been determined for the attainment of maturity in different areas, ranging from 12 to 30 years (Hirth, 1997).
4.1. Species distribution
cosmopolitan movements, visiting a variety of widely separated habitats throughout its life: nesting and hatching on beaches, the open sea for gathering, and benthic areas for feeding and growing (Seminoff, 2004).
Many nesting areas have been identified in Mexico (Alvarado-Díaz, Delgado-Trejo & Suazo-Ortuño, 2001), Ecuador (Green, 1984), the United States, Costa Rica and Chile (Blanco, Morreale, Seminoff et al, 2013, White, Morreale, Bailey, et al., 2012). A number of important foraging areas have also been identified in the United States, Colombia, and Ecuador (Seminoff, 2004).
In the last general evaluation to evaluate the interest in the conservation of the species by the IUCN, it is shown that the presence and origin of the species in Guatemala is uncertain (Seminoff, 2004).
According to Seminoff (2004), the species is currently threatened, and the population trend is on the decline. The main threats to the species worldwide are commercial and residential development, especially tourist and recreational areas; and the use of biological resources, specifically fishing and exploitation of aquatic resources. The IUCN report (Seminoff, 2004) indicates that there has been a decline of at least 50 percent of individuals in the last three generations. The constant harvesting of eggs on the beaches during the nesting season for consumption and sale and the hunting of turtles at foraging sites are the main anthropogenic threats. Other threats are fishing nets where individuals are trapped in the open sea.
In the case of the turtles of the “Poza del Nance” the main threat is the boats that constantly pass through the site, which, due to the weaknesses in the speed control by the authorities, usually do physical damage to the individuals. The data obtained from the sampling carried out by the Protortugas association in the Poza del Nance show that 15 percent (of a total of 55) of the individuals captured and marked between 2006 and 2008 showed scars or damage caused by boat propellers (Alfaro, 2006-2008).
4.3. Conservation interest
The trend of the world population of the species according to the IUCN list of endangered species is decreasing and the species is threatened (Seminoff, 2004). The species is listed in Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). On the list of threatened species in Guatemala, the species Chelonia mydas and Chelonia mydas agassizii are in category 3. This category includes species that may not be in danger of extinction but could be if their use is not regulated. Its use for scientific and reproductive purposes is allowed. Its use for commercial purposes is also allowed as long as it is regulated through the presentation of management plans (CONAP, 2009).
However, according to CONAP regulations, hunting of this species is not allowed, neither for sport hunting nor subsistence hunting (CONAP, 2010). The general fishing law also prohibits the intentional capture or fishing of this species (Congress of the Republic of Guatemala 2002).
4.4. Studies with markers and satellite tracking
Due to the wide distribution ranges and long movements of the species, physical markers have been an indispensable part of research to track the species in various parts of the world. However, these methods require a high investment of time and effort and a high amount of willingness to locate and report individuals found with tags.
In the last decade, satellite tracking allows detailed monitoring of the migration route of an individual by placing a device that constantly transmits its position to a satellite. The disadvantage of this method is the relatively high price of transmitters placed on individuals. This cost initially varied between 2 and 3 thousand dollars, although currently they can be obtained for a cost of around 1,500 dollars. Also, it is necessary to include in the cost the payment of the information about the location that is obtained from the satellites, which will cost around 500 dollars per year. The useful life of these transmitters will also last for about a year.
There is an interesting article about the use of satellite markers worldwide. Jeffers & Godley (2016) interviewed more than 170 researchers who used satellite radio tracking of sea turtles and published their results. More than half of these researchers used data produced by themselves, but more interestingly, the rest of the researchers used data produced by other researchers in one way or another. This implies that the data produced by this method has the potential to contribute to scientific research not only in Guatemala but in many other countries, since these data are extremely useful to them. The study also shows that the amount of scientific research carried out with sea turtles has increased exponentially since 1982 with the application of this new research technique. From the data obtained from these investigations, it is shown that a good part has had positive effects on the policies implemented in their respective countries and that more than half of the projects carried out document it in their publications. However, there are several undocumented policies.
The potential of the application of this technique to strengthen the decisions of conservation and management of turtles in Guatemala is very high. There is no study with satellite markers of turtles in Guatemala.
4.5. Species data in Guatemala
Despite its particular biology in the country, no continuous efforts have been made to monitor the population that inhabits the Poza del Nance. This species does not spawn on the beaches of Guatemala, or at least the numbers of spawning are low, so it has not been given the necessary attention.
There are only two research initiatives in the area:
Protortugas: This organization is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) formed mainly by veterinary doctors integrated to the University of San Carlos of Guatemala. The main objective of the work of Protortugas is to ensure the general health of the tortoise populations in the Poza del Nance and with that objective, they capture, diagnose, free parasites, cure and release the specimens. This activity was carried out occasionally during the years 2006 to 2008. It is not certain if the project covered a few more years, since only these data are available to the public at the National Council of Protected Areas. These data are extremely important, since they describe the statisticians of the sample of the local population that inhabits the Poza del Nance. These data describe the weights, sizes, health status and main threats of individuals. At the same time, there is data on the marches or tags used to mark the captured turtles, which should be compared with the sightings in different databases to analyze their origin.
Origin of green turtles through mitochondrial DNA: Chavarría (2017) is a bachelor’s degree thesis document carried out in the area. Between 2014 and 2015, 35 individuals were captured to obtain DNA samples and amplify them with the aim of identifying the nesting areas where the turtles that make up the Poza del Nance population come from. The results showed that 70 percent of the samples came from the population of Cololá, Michoacan, 16 percent from the Galapagos, 5 percent from Costa Rica and one percent from Isla Revillagigedo.
Nesting record: There is a record in the information system of the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP) from May 25, 2017, at 18:50 where the record of a Chelonia mydas nest with 17 eggs is shown. The turtle had a tag numbered PC394/PC395. The search was made by Scott Handy of identified by Bryan P Wallace. The date of the event makes it extremely rare.
4.6. Poza del Nance
This is the hydrological information in the Sipacate-Naranjo National Park Management Plan (CONAP, 2002):
“Within the Sipacate-Naranjo National Park (PNSN), the Sipacate estuary is located, which covers approximately from Sipacate to Paredón Buena Vista, and which constitutes the first section or beginning of the Chiquimulilla Canal. This is an estuary that has the influence of marine waters, fresh continental waters and rainwater. It is characterized by a daily cycle of tides and salinity levels equivalent to the average of sea and river water; In addition, there is a seasonal cycle of increased freshwater discharge as a result of abundant precipitation, followed by an increase in salinity during the dry season.
The estuary is of variable width, with channels within the lagoon system formed by flows and refluxes (COMDIC 1990). One of the deepest and widest areas is what is known as Poza del Nance. Near the Paredón Buena Vista is the bocabarra or exit to the sea called Barra La Criba. Depending on the tide, navigation difficulties may be encountered, but the estuary is widely used as a transportation route and there is an intense extraction of fishing resources.
The estuary extends to the east in a wetland with an extensive mangrove swamp (see Plant Cover Map) where the stretch of the Chiquimulilla Canal that runs from Paredón Buena Vista to the village of El Naranjo is located. This section is where there is more depth and it is navigable, although it has very narrow parts. Its shores are covered with mangrove trees, and its waters change from blackish (silty) to greenish and pestilent, due to decreased circulation and natural accumulation of decomposing organic material.”
The technical study (PNUD, 2018) suggests that the presence of the green turtle in the Poza del Nance is due to the presence of Rhodophyta algae (Gracilariopsis lemaneiformi). This species of algae is presumed to be distributed in the shallow and muddy areas of the Sipacate channel. There is a precedent for this behavior reported by Raymundo-González (2010) in estuarine lagoons in Mexico. However, it must be clarified that the technical documents do not refer to Raymundo-González affirming this fact directly about the Poza del Nance in Guatemala or that he had the opportunity to identify the species of red algae in it.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), US. Department of Commerce
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a scientific organization and regulatory agency within the Department of Commerce of the United States of America. They are responsible for weather forecasting, ocean and weather monitoring, marine charting, conducting deep ocean exploration, and managing fisheries and the protection of marine mammals and threatened species in the United States Economic Exclusion Zone.
NOAA develops projects related to sea turtles for which they have a specially designed program. NOAA develops its activities within the framework of the Sea Turtle Assessment program supports NOAA Fisheries Science Center-led projects and works to improve the quality of sea turtle monitoring based on the 2013-Sea Turtle Assessment Status and Research Needs report, Endangered Species Act recovery plans and the 2004 marine protected species stock assessment implementation plan (SAIP). The world’s most renowned scientists on the subject carry out their activities within it. On the NOAA website you can review the projects which they develop and support (https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/population-assessments/sea-turtle-assessment-research-projects).
Jeffrey Seminoff, Ph.D. is the Program Lead, Marine Turtle Ecology and Assessment for the Marine Mammal & Turtle Division within NOAA. Our first step in the development of this project was to contact Dr. Seminoff to request his technical support. The doctor has highlighted the importance of developing research at the Nance Pond and has already provided his support in the form of training in techniques for placing markers on turtles and specialized capture equipment for sea turtles. In addition, NOAA has guaranteed the provision of tagging equipment and tags for the turtles, as well as possible satellite tracking equipment. This alliance represents a considerable advance in this type of research.
In general, there are no continuous studies in the park that can provide biological and population data on the species that inhabits the Poza del Nance. Below is the background showing the priority of research development with this species.
5.1. Information gaps in Guatemala
Although some specific studies have been carried out on the species in Guatemala, the IUCN Red List page still lists Guatemala among the countries where the presence and origin of the species are uncertain. The presence of the species in Guatemala has been known for decades, however, there have been no publications on the matter that support the data of the species in the country.
IUCN proposes among the activities that should be carried out with the species: Carry out monitoring in foraging areas to provide additional metric data and detect changes in the abundance of the population.
This figure from the https://seamap.env.duke.edu/swot site shows how there are two important gaps in turtle research in Central America. One of them is the coast of Nicaragua, where biological research is impeded due to drug trafficking, and the other is the entire Pacific coast of Guatemala. This shows us how important it is to start developing an effective investigation, in the long term and using the most modern current investigation techniques.
5.2. Justifications in the Sipacate-Naranjo National Park Management Plan (CONAP, 2002)
The Sipacate-Naranjo National Park Management Plan (CONAP, 2002) establishes within the research and monitoring program:
Objective: Generate scientific information that allows the management and conservation of the PNSN, its resources and its area of influence.
Some specific research has been carried out in the area, although isolated and most without continuity. Currently, a study is being carried out on the abundance and conditions of sea turtles that visit the Poza del Nance. There is a lack of basic studies on the biological diversity and potential of the area. There is widespread ignorance about the state and biology of the resources that are exploited. There is a lack of a monitoring program for the variations of biological, physical and social aspects of the specific conditions of the PNSN.
The program of strategies and regulations for the orientation of research is established, which considers two general lines of research:
(i) Generation of basic biological information (inventories of fauna and flora) with special attention to flagship species (sea turtles, migratory waterfowl, mangroves, others) and continuation of obtaining archaeological information, for environmental interpretation, valorization, and promotion of the area.
(ii) Generation of ecological information on population status, life cycle and capacity to use hydrobiological and terrestrial species in the area with management potential, aimed at proposing the necessary measures to ensure their sustainability.
The research is applied in order to support the other programs, especially the environmental education subprogram, the recreation and tourism subprogram, the financing subprogram, and the resource management program. Species management and use plans are created and supported by scientific information obtained in specific research and monitoring.
- Research and local support team that develops the research and monitoring program.
- Agreements with scientific entities (universities/national and international centers)
- Infrastructure, equipment, and logistical support for research.
- Registration and monitoring system for research in the PNSN.
The Sipacate-Naranjo National Park Management Plan (CONAP, 2002) establishes within the public use program within the Environmental Education Subprogram:
Objective: Strengthen environmental education aimed at people in the area and visitors, to promote a change of attitude in relation to the natural resources of the area and educate about the importance of their conservation.
Some isolated environmental education activities have been carried out in the area by institutions that have developed work in the park, such as El Proyecto Manglares, FUNDAECO, CONAP, and students from the EPS program at the University of San Carlos de Guatemala. Currently there are organized groups of the population that are aware of the importance of conserving the environment. The area has a high potential for visitation, but it lacks an interpretive and attention program for visitors.
Both children and adults acquire a change of attitude in relation to the natural resources of the PNSN and practice activities of cleaning, valuing, and respecting the resources. Environmental education is part of the curriculum in area schools. The visitor to the area is educated about the importance and conservation of the resources of the place.
- Develop activities such as celebration of days alluding to conservation with adults and children, selection contests for the PNSN mascot, calendar with drawings to be sold, beach cleaning, release of hatchling turtles, etc.
- Support community and private environmental education initiatives for the visitor, providing technical advice and setting up a visitor center in the sub-headquarters, aquatic and terrestrial interpretive trails, with signs and a written educational guide (the trail includes important sites, archaeological sites, bird and turtle observation points, mangroves, etc.)
- Educational material (posters, brochures, biological material, interpretive guide, audiovisual equipment).
The Sipacate-Naranjo National Park Management Plan (CONAP, 2002) establishes within the public use program within the Recreation and Tourism Subprogram:
Objective: Promote and order recreation activities and low-impact tourism oriented to nature, as an alternative source of income that supports the economic sustainability of the area.
The places with the highest tourist visitation are the PNSN beaches, mainly where Rancho Carrillo is located. On holidays, places are improvised to stay, food is sold, and there are lifeguards. The tourism potential of the PNSN is not exploited. The area does not have the infrastructure or community services that promote tourist visitation, with the exception of the Sipacate village. The current visitation does not represent an adequate economic benefit to the communities and the park. The PNSN does not have a tourism management plan that includes planning, carrying capacity and potential impacts.
There is a low-impact tourism management and development plan, oriented to nature, where visitation, benefits to the communities, and income to the protected area are promoted.
The Sipacate-Naranjo National Park Management Plan (CONAP, 2002) establishes
within its opportunities:
Recreation and tourism opportunities
PM-PN Sipacate-Naranjo Currently in the PNSN you can visit the beaches, surf in the sea and travel by boat through the estuary and the channel. The place has high potential for ecotourism, due to the different habitats that can be visited, the opportunity to observe birds and sea turtles, the possibility of aquatic and terrestrial tours, participation in local traditions, such as chatting, fishing and crabs. In addition, there is potential to visit archaeological sites.
The entire PNSN wetland offers excellent resources for environmental education aimed at visitors and locals due to the ease of observing different habitats of the coastal-marine ecosystem with their interactions and ecological phenomena. In addition, there is the possibility of participating in conservation activities, such as sowing of turtle eggs and release of hatchlings, mangrove reforestation, beach cleaning, visiting turtle nurseries. The archaeological sites of the place have the potential to facilitate a cultural education about the history of the oldest civilizations in the country and the origin of corn.
The site offers a biological, archaeological, and social environment that has been little studied and is ideal for carrying out numerous investigations. There is priority for doing applied research that supports management and conservation efforts, such as economic valuation of natural resources, characterization and monitoring of water pollution, studies of life cycles and population abundance with proposals for plans for the use of species such as for example crabs, mangroves, turtles, black-bellied whistling duck, fish, etc. Current investigations and with the possibility of follow-up are the projects of the state of the sea turtle populations that visit the site and the project of ancient environment and human occupation.
5.3. Technical study proposed in 2018
A new proposal to recategorize the area was developed by a multidisciplinary group of foreign-funded planners. This study proposes to categorize the canal area, within which the Poza del Nance is included as a conservation area. According to this study (UNDP, 2018): “In this area, activities aimed at the conservation of the environment and biological diversity, the development of scientific research, controlled ecotourism and cultural activities may be developed. In this area, hunting will not be allowed, the change of land use, the extraction of mangroves and some fishing gear will be regulated.”
Although this study has not been approved, it raises interesting activities: inter-institutional coordination, environmental education, ecotourism development, research, and biological monitoring. The development of the present proposed investigation manages to adequately meet the expectations in the achievement of even these objectives.
5.4. Bathymetry and seagrass cover
A bathymetric description of the channel was made for the technical study (PNUD, 2018), however, the detail of this is of little use to analyze management measures or monitoring of the area. There is also the reference of a bathymetry measurement project carried out in 2015 by the Climate Change Institute, however, these data are not easily accessible to scientists outside the circle of the institute itself, so they are useless to carry out any type of research.
It is necessary to see how external factors (temperature, rainfall, sediments and any other) may be affecting the physical form of the area and correlate them in the future with the climate and other management activities.
Due to advances in technology, it is also possible to measure seagrass cover using the same lateral sonar survey equipment.
Obviously, the monitoring of the seagrass cover area would be a very important factor to define to denote the health of the ecosystem and its relationship with the populations of sea turtles.
- Proposed methodology
To achieve the objectives, some activities have been proposed that will initially be carried out to underpin the achievements during this first year of work.
The budget comes from volunteering and from funds that will be obtained as donations to give it continuity. All the funds to be used in the project will come from donations from various sources: sale of souvenirs, participation of volunteers, fundraising events.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an American organization that develops scientific research with sea turtles. Within the NOAA staff, Dr. Jeffrey Seminoff has the role of Program Lead of Marine Turtle Ecology and Assessment in the Marine Mammal and Turtle Division at Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Currently, he is the world authority on threats to sea turtles for the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).
The project is a personal initiative of Guatemalan scientists with technical support and scientific advice from Dr. Seminoff. Currently, strategic alliances are being developed with some non-governmental organizations that are interested in joining the project and also with tour operators interested in ecotourism development and conservation of the area.
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