The turtle and the egg problem

The Israeli Sea Turtle Rescue Center is working to bring the critically endangered green sea turtle population back from the verge of extinction.

turtle 88 (photo credit: )
turtle 88
(photo credit: )
It's not easy being green, especially if you're a green sea turtle, and the Israeli Sea Turtle Rescue Center and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority are doing their best to stave off extinction of the species through what amounts to a stud farm for the species. While the loggerhead turtle is also endangered in our area, its numbers far outstrip those of the green turtles, which is why center director Yaniv Levy, the INPA and others have been hard at work trying to find a way to increase the number of the green visitors to our shores, leading to the launching of "The Green Project." "The green turtle population in the Mediterranean has been declared critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Nature Resources," explained Levy. "At the beginning of the century, there were some 2,000-3,000 such turtles nesting in Israel. We have a paper from the UK Fishery Department from 1935 saying there was a slaughter of 2,000 turtles a year during at that time. Since then they've become almost completely extinct." According to Dr. Noam Leader, head of the ecology department in INPA's science division, today the number of nesting loggerhead or "brown" sea turtles is about 180, compared to only about five to 19 green ones. "We decided to adopt an active management plan, because otherwise they would disappear altogether. In 2002 we started gathering our breeding stock - we hold turtles in captivity, we grow them and when they are sexually mature - probably in 2013-2015 - and will mate, we will give them a nice artificial beach on which to lay their eggs. After they lay their eggs, we'll take the eggs and place them in nature reserves along the Israeli coast, and then the hatchlings will hatch into the natural environment, and not into captivity. And that way we hope to rebuild the population," Leader said. While a turtle may seem like just a turtle to the inexperienced observer, Levy said the two types are very different in temperament, with the loggerhead considered more like Israelis, and the greens more like Europeans in attitude and behavior. "That's what I usually say," Levy noted, "The loggerhead is very aggressive, biting, you can't keep two of them in one tank - they'll kill each other. And the green ones don't bite, they're more calm, more graceful; they spend a lot of time swimming. They're slower and more fragile," making them more of a target and contributing to their current population problem. The project started out with 30 turtles, but in the first month three died, while one was added in 2004, making 28 lucky participants awaiting their command to be fruitful and multiply in several years. Meanwhile they are carefully watched, measured and checked for illness every two weeks. By the time they're ready for action they're expected to weigh some 60 kg. each, according to the INPA, and hopefully help the center win the fight against their extinction. MEANWHILE, THIS is the magical time of year when sea turtles lay their eggs, and the experience of watching the hatchlings make their mad dash to the sea after breaking open their shells is a powerful experience, even for veteran INPA official Guy Ayalon, director of the central district, who's witnessed the event many times. "You sit quietly on a quiet, empty beach. Just being there at night is exciting," he recalled at the recent ceremony in which seven sea turtles were released back into the Mediterranean. "And then you see the sand suddenly start moving at the hatching point, and the young turtles start to pop out of their shells. At first it's just a few individuals, but then there are bigger groups, who instinctively want to run to the sea... Then they run, some running like mad, animals which just now hatched. Every time one sees this, it's tremendously exciting, something that gives you chills, and an accomplishment, because in most of these nests, we reach about 80-100 percent success rate of hatchings, and this only proves that our teams are working correctly." That work involves making it easier both for the mother turtle to lay her eggs and for the hatchlings to make it to the Mediterranean. The INPA and other wildlife groups got a law passed forbidding building near the beaches, meaning the light from restaurants, banquet halls or other places along the shore won't distract the young hatchlings and send them in the wrong direction. Generally, it takes from one to four days for the hatchlings to make it into the water, according to the INPA. Meanwhile, other legislation has been passed to prevent vehicles from driving on the beaches, which might ruin the spot a turtle mom has returned to once again this year to lay her eggs, as they usually do. Levy and his center in cooperation with INPA rangers have set up fenced-off hatcheries for the turtles along our beaches. During 2008, volunteers aided the process to help the little turtles on their way. "We try to put volunteers at the hatcheries every night during the season, so that when the little ones are hatching, we make sure they get to the sea, and don't get stuck in plastic debris on the coast, or fall victim to crabs, foxes, tar or other dangers," said Levy. "Sea turtles were initially land animals who turned to the sea thousands of years ago, but they must still propagate on land," explained Dr. Yariv Malichi, district ecologist for INPA. "A sea turtle hatched on a shore wanders the Mediterranean for 15 years, and like a migrating bird or salmon, returns to the place where it hatched. During that time, the changes that the beach undergoes can be far-reaching - marinas, ports, hotels, new cities, leaving the returning turtle without anywhere to lay its eggs. Thus their numbers have dwindled." LEVY'S CENTER and INPA are doing great work in changing that trend, in the 16 years it has been focusing on the sea turtle population problem. The INPA reports that while the record for nests had been 81 in a year, set in 2000 and 2004, in 2006-2008 the average number almost doubled, to 153. INPA officials say this may be the first sign of success of its program, but also credit increased public awareness, while another factor may be the increase in sea temperature, which can increase the turtles' metabolism, and the rate of egg-laying. Anyone finding an injured sea turtle should call *6911; those interested in trying to join a hatching tour should call INPA at *3639. Either way, volunteers are playing a major part in making it easier for the sea turtles to survive and multiply. INPA's Yedid Haholot program, partially sponsored by a grant from the US government, sees groups of schoolchildren, adults and soldiers learn more about beaches, improve their awareness about the turtles, and get communities near the beaches involved in protecting them and the wildlife that lives there, and some 300 groups a year visit the Israeli Sea Turtle Rescue Center. A new, bigger center will hopefully lead to even more volunteers like Inbal Merom of Netanya, who explained as the release ceremony unfolded: "There's a food chain, and if a part of it is wiped out, then those who eat them won't have anything to eat... We have to guard nature and it gave me a good feeling that the turtles aren't being wiped out - it's like a family going home." Read more about efforts to save Israel's sea turtles in Friday's UpFront.