Thursday, February 7, 2008

Yadua cheers turtle tagging - Thursday, February 07, 2008

TOP: Yadua park ranger Pita Biciloa, right, with Josaia Sukaloa take measurements of the nesting Hawksbill in the background+ Enlarge this image

TOP: Yadua park ranger Pita Biciloa, right, with Josaia Sukaloa take measurements of the nesting Hawksbill in the background

By Jone Niukula of The National Trust of Fiji and Sainivalati Navuku, WWF Fiji Country Program

ATTEMPTS over the past two years to locate and tag a nesting turtle in Fiji bore fruit last month.

The collaborative effort of the National Trust of Fiji, the community of Yadua, SPREP (Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program), NOAA (National Ocean & Atmospheric Administration) and WWF has been the climax of on-going efforts over past years to protect an endangered cultural icon.

Yadua community celebrates

turtle tagging

North-east of Yadua Taba Island (in Bua province and a famous iguana sanctuary) on a secluded beach locally known as Talice, a nesting Hawksbill turtle was located.

The turtle was spotted by 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 tag a Hawksbill nester, a first for Fiji.

The sight of the turtle tracks on the beach triggered excitement among the research team.

Pita Biciloa, the park ranger on Yadua manoeuvred his boat in an attempt to channel through a small passage to get to Talice. Against all odds, the team managed to secure the boat ashore, their excitement and enthusiasm fuelled even more, as they approached the turtle tracks on the beach and heard loud "swooshes" the sound of sand being scattered as the Hawksbill started to dig in on the beach.

The sound of waves crashing on the beach, as if to applaud and cheer the turtle and lighting flashes on the horizon as darkness began to swallow the earth was the most majestic greeting to this ancient sea reptile as it crawled up 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 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 its eggs and with the attachment of the satellite tag, said this would be an unforgettable experience for them. A small church service was conducted before the turtle was released into the sea with the hope to see it return to Yadua in years to come.

Fiji's first satellite tagged turtle

The excitement generated out of locating the nesting turtle on Yadua stems from the fact that this is Fiji's first 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.

The surveys are 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 the turtle population in Fiji.

Implementing these activities has been greatly assisted by 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 this month. Around the region, satellite telemetry work has enabled several Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTs) such as Samoa, the Cook Islands, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia to track the migration of turtles that nested on their beach. Several of the telemetry results illustrate a westward trend of migration, with turtles tagged in three of the countries/territories listed above migrating to Fiji.

Fiji's healthy seagrass meadows and coral reefs are hot spots for turtles to feed.

One famous illustration of this type of work was the migration of Lady Vini a female Hawksbill tagged in Samoa in March 2006 and then moved through the Exclusive Economic Zones of 6 PICTs before entering Fiji in October 2006, where the signal died.

For several years now, turtle migration has 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 dependent on the serial numbers being reported to the relevant authorities by those who come across turtles carrying the flipper tags.

Based on these reports, authorities are then able to plot the path the turtles take on their migration.

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