SLEEPLESS NIGHTS ON PALMERSTON

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By Jacqui Evans

COOK ISLANDS (December 21, 2000 - Cook Islands News)---Almost all Palmerston islanders not nursing a baby have been up and about in the middle of the night patrolling a remote beach on Cooks Motu.

Their job? To count all nesting turtles as part of a turtle survey coordinated by Hoyt Peckham of Cook Islands Whale Research and Bill Marsters of the Ministry of Marine Resources.

The number of turtles found during the survey total just seven nesting females, including four that have returned to the beach to nest a second time.

SLOW YEAR

This is a disappointing tally for Peckham. "2000 appears to be a very slow year, especially compared to 1999, when five to ten times more nesting occurred."

Peckham says the purpose of the survey is to determine the relative abundance of the turtles, a traditional food for Cook Islanders.

"Replicated each year, it will yield baseline data that can be used to determine whether and at what level harvesting is possible," he says.

The survey is to be done on the same beach, for the same length of time, during the same time of the year so that total annual numbers are comparable.

"Our scientific survey will give Marsters an objective tool with which to manage the turtles here. Instead of relying on chance and isolated encounters to determine abundance, the survey results will yield a concrete measure of nesting activity on which their turtle conservation measures can be based."

The chosen motu for monitoring the turtles is Cooks Motu, which is the most heavily nested.

SHIFTS

Because turtles nest at night, the surveys are done in shifts beginning at sunset until 1:00 a.m. and then again from 1:00 a.m. to sunrise. The beach is patrolled every hour. After a turtle has finished laying its eggs, its quickly tagged and measured and a biopsy sample taken for genetic analysis. The whole process takes about 5-10 minutes.

Nearly all of the Palmerston community has been involved in the turtle survey, including the young and old.

"We are trying to accommodate every able-bodied adult who’s not nursing a baby!" says Peckham.

He says the experience gained through involvement in the project is as important as the data the survey is yielding.

"We are gaining a first-hand look at the work of conservation and natural resource management."

The beach survey began November 1 and was completed November 25.

Funding has been provided by the Boston (USA) based Conservation Action Fund and is supported by the Honolulu Laboratory of the National Marine Fisheries Service, USA, the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands News Online.

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