SLEEPLESS NIGHTS TRACKING TURTLES ON PALMERSTON, COOK ISLANDS

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By Bernadette Masianini and Jacqui Evans

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (April 17, 2001 - PINA Nius Online)---Palmerston atoll in the Cook Islands was a hive of activity for several weeks recently when islanders spent their nights patrolling a remote beach in an effort to count nesting turtles.

The 15 islands of the Cooks are predominantly atolls whose sandy, limestone beaches provide a sheltered nesting place for the green turtle (Chelonia mydas). The turtle is also a traditional food for Cook Islanders.

The survey on Palmerston atoll was coordinated by Hoyt Peckham of Cook Islands Whale Research and Bill Marsters of the Ministry of Marine Resources. The conservation organization WWF also assisted in the project.

"Repeated each year, these surveys will yield baseline data that can be used to determine whether and at what level harvesting is possible," says Peckham.

The survey will be done on the same beach for the same length of time during the same time of the year so that total annual numbers can be comparable.

The whole island population was involved. All of the volunteers were given the surname "Marsters" thanks to one of Captain Cook's crew, William Masters, and his three wives who settled the island in 1863. (The extra "r" in his name was added later.)

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 lays her eggs, she is quickly tagged, measured and a biopsy sample taken for genetic analysis.

The whole process takes about 5-10 minutes.

Peckham said the experience the Marsters are gaining through their involvement in the project is as important as the data the survey is yielding.

"They are gaining a first-hand look at the work of conservation and natural resource management," he said.

"Our scientific survey will give the 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 to base their turtle conservation measures."

Only seven nesting females, including four that have returned to the beach to nest a second time, were found during the survey. This is a disappointing statistic for Peckham.

"2000 appears to be a very slow year, especially when compared to 1999, when five to 10 times more nesting occurred," he said.

The first turtle in the Cook Islands to be monitored by satellite was also released in November.

"Mama Marsters" was tagged after she had laid her eggs.

It took about two hours to attach the tag - about the size of a videocassette - to her shell using fiberglass. She was released unharmed immediately afterwards.

The information on her progress is relayed back to the satellite monitors.

The findings will prove invaluable for researchers in the Cook Islands and Hawai‘i in unlocking mysteries in the life cycle of the green turtle such as:

"The community showed a keen involvement in her progress," Peckham says.

WWF provided regular updates on her position throughout the tracking period in the local newspaper and schools.

Renamed Mama Onu, the turtle was tracked to her feeding ground in the Vatulele waters of the Fiji group, located over 1,200 kilometers (720 miles) away. It took her 40 days to swim there.

The Cook Islands government signed a Memorandum of Understanding in December with WWF to formally establish a WWF office.

WWF will carry out surveys and research, protected area management, integrated rural development, conservation education, training, resource planning and management, environmental protection, nature or eco-tourism projects and other sustainable development activities.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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