Rod’s career has been fueled by a lifelong passion for sea turtles, marine science, and biodiversity conservation. He worked as a field biologist and naturalist in the USA, Mexico, Galapagos, and Colombia, and later as a conservationist (with RARE, WWF-US, and Conservation International [CI]) spanning the globe from Latin America to Africa, Madagascar, and Asia. In 23 years of service at CI Rod was active in species conservation (sea turtles, primates, marine mammals), and in founding and overseeing programs in the Andes (Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia), Madagascar, Botswana, and helping to launch the Papua New Guinea/Melanesia, Brazil, and Guianas programs as well. Also noteworthy was his involvement in the 1997 launch of the Global Amphibian Campaign, the creation of CI’s Culture and Training Program and the CI-Sojourns VIP travel program, and his leadership of the Great Turtle Race (2007 and 2009).
Can you talk briefly about the roles sea turtles play in seagrass, coral, and dune ecosystems?
Sea turtles are unquestionably an integral part of marine ecosystems. They are very important in terms of moving biomass and energy among trophic levels for instance. Green sea turtles are like the bison or wildebeest of the seas, and they eat enormous amounts of sea grass and recycle that biomass back into the nutrient cycle. Sea turtles are also important in moving biomass and nutrients from the sea to the land because they bring their eggs ashore.
Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) eating sea grass
You only have to look at a picture of a ridley turtle arribada [a mass nesting event] to realize that hundreds of tons of biomass comes from sea to land to nourish beaches. Baby turtles are also an enormous food source for an array of different animals, both terrestrial and marine. The leatherback is one of few animals in the sea that is a mass consumer of jellyfish. It is the largest turtle on Earth, and it eats almost exclusively jellies, which are about 99% water.
You can only imagine that they have to consume tons and tons of jellies in their lives to achieve and maintain that size, and meet their own energy needs. Hawksbills are one of few things on the reef that eats mass quantities of sponges, which, if not controlled, can choke out coral and take over a reef.
Every creature big and small is a thread in the elaborate fabric of ocean health. No one would question the important ecological function of whales for instance, because of the amount of krill they consume and recycle, but whales are pelagic, open sea creatures only.
Sea turtles are not only found in the open sea, but they are also coral reef inhabitants, inshore feeders, grazers, and widespread migrators. They are even abyssal at times, as leatherbacks can dive to depths of over a half mile. There is barely a cubic meter of tropical ocean, beach, or nearshore biomes in the world that is not sea turtle habitat. [For more on the ecological roles of turtles, see Volume 2 of State of the World’s Turtles, a magazine-style report for which Roderic has served as Chief Editor since 2004, and which is launched annually at the International Sea Turtle Symposium.]
A hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) feeding on a sponge
The migratory journeys of sea turtles are mind-blowing. Is there one particular species that is known to travel the farthest?
Benson S.R., Dutton, P.H., Hitipeuw, C., Samber, B., Bakarbessy, J., and Parker, D. 2007.
The one that is most epic is the leatherback. A few years ago, a paper was published about a turtle that nested in the Western Pacific, in the northwestern part of the island of New Guinea, and migrated all the way to Oregon over a period of less than a year. [Benson S.R., Dutton, P.H., Hitipeuw, C., Samber, B., Bakarbessy, J., and Parker, D. 2007. Post-nesting migrations of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) from Jamursba-Medi,Birds Head Peninsula, Indonesia. Chelonian Conservation and Biology 6(1):150-154.] In the Atlantic, there are leatherbacks and other turtles that feed off the coast of Brazil and nest on the coast of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea in West Africa.
What are the major threats sea turtles face along these journeys?
The IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group has spent a lot of time talking about this, because we knew it was important that the sea turtle conservation community agree on the key threats. Hazards to sea turtles pretty much boil down to five things, and each one could be broken into a variety of sub-issues of differing intensities based on the species, the location, or the timing. These are:
- Fisheries impacts
- Coastal development
- Direct take
- Pollution and pathogens
- Global warming
You could devote a lot of energy into just figuring out what all of the fisheries impacts are because we have seven different species, and there are so many different fisheries. There are key issues like loggerheads getting caught in shrimp trawls in the Southeast Atlantic; leatherbacks getting caught on longlines in the Pacific; turtles everywhere getting caught in gill nets. Fisheries have, by far, the most serious impact globally on sea turtles.
Coastal development comes in a close second. Turtles cannot nest unless they have appropriate beaches to nest on. As hotels and lighting have gone up on beaches, beaches have become increasingly unsuitable nesting habitats. That means more and more turtles are cramming into the suitable nesting sites wherever they occur. But those suitable nesting sites might move with climate change.
A sea turtle heads back to the ocean after attempting to nest on a developed beach in Mexico
How much do we know about the impact of climate change (and things like increased ocean temperatures and salinity, warming sands, sea level rise, etc.) on sea turtles?
We don’t know as much as we ought to, but we know there will likely be significant impacts on turtles and all ocean creatures from global climate change. Turtles have been around for 110 million years virtually unchanged, so they’ve already seen a few global warming cycles, although nothing quite as fast or severe as what is happening now. They’ve changed their nesting beaches as climate has impacted their ranges over the millennia, but that is harder to do nowadays. It may be that the temperature of the sea and beach, in terms of its suitability for nesting, mean that a turtle has to go a couple of degrees north or south latitude, but those beaches may have hotels on them. There have been some studies using data from SWOT to help model future habitat suitability with respect to global climate change, but it is still kind of a mystery. [see Pike, David. 2013. Climate inﬂuences the global distribution of sea turtle nesting. Global Ecology and Biogeography]
Of the five main hazards you mentioned, which do we know the least about, and which one scares you the most?
Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) escapes through a TED
Fisheries impact scares me the most—not because we know the least about, but because fisheries are an enormous economic [engine], and people aren’t going to stop fishing just because they kill turtles. This threat requires technical and political solutions.
There have been a lot of advances over the last 20 years in fisheries gear that does not kill turtles, but there has to be a policy component as well. We have a perfectly good way to keep turtles out of shrimp nets; it’s called a TED, a Turtle Excluder Device. Not only does it prevent incidental sea turtle capture—which fisherman don’t want either—but it also improves shrimp catch—which they do want. It has been around [since the 1980s] but still, for a variety of reasons, people don’t use it effectively everywhere, despite that it is in many ways for sea turtles what safety belts are to automobile deaths (i.e., there’s no good reason not to use them). That means that there have to be policy solutions. The fact that we know what to do and haven’t necessarily done it yet, worries me more than the mystery of what global warming is going to do. [Note: for more about the U.S. policy requiring shrimp trawlers to use Turtle Excluder Devices, see Expert Q&A: NOAA Fisheries in this issue.]
For this issue of Leaf Litter, we were fortunate enough to chat with Joanna Alfaro of the Peruvian conservation organization Pro Delphinus, which works to prevent bycatch among artisanal fishermen. I understand that artisanal fisherman are as important a part of the bycatch problem and solution as industrial fishing operations.
They likely have a greater impact, because most artisanal fisheries are inshore, and that is where the turtles are. You have young, developmental turtles inshore, you have nesters coming and going from shores, and you have adult males and females breeding close to nesting beaches. In many cases, these artisanal fisheries are regulated, but we don’t have much data on them. Large, commercial tuna fishermen are controlled by international commissions like the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, and though there is some outlaw fishing going on, there is a pretty close eye kept on commercial fisheries. But the inshore stuff? Not so much.
The Oceanic Society has a three-pronged approach to its mission to conserve marine life: Supporting field-based marine conservation projects, offering nature travel opportunities, and conducting or supporting research that informs conservation. The research prong includes research related to human behavior. How important is behavioral science in sea turtle conservation, and what have you learned about human behavior change that has been most valuable to sea turtle conservation?
It is the single most important component of all conservation. I have come to this opinion having worked in many aspects of terrestrial and marine conservation for my entire life. What I have learned is that the health of the ocean is basically related to only two things right now: what humans put into the ocean, and what humans take out of the ocean.
The one thing we need to focus on as conservationists is changing human behavior. That is the bottom line. Those five hazards we just discussed? They are all about human behavior. People in the health industry, marketing, and psychotherapy have focused on behavior change quite effectively. But they’ve never been challenged with the idea of focusing on behavior change as it relates to maintaining healthy oceans. That is what we are attempting to do with a program we started in 2014 called Blue Habits.
About 1500-2000 people each year participate in our whale watching experiences in the [San Francisco] Bay Area. On these outings, we are creating moments of high conservation motivation among these participants. We have teamed with social scientists and behavioral ecologists from Stanford University and elsewhere to look at how we use and extend these spikes in motivation.
When you go on a whale watch, and you are so moved by seeing a blue whale that you want to do something to help the ocean, how do we make sure that you feel the same way a week later? How do we stretch out that motivational spike and introduce behavior changes that you will adopt for the long term? These are the sorts of questions that are so important to how we approach conservation.
As I mentioned before, sea turtles are important for ecologically sound oceans, and they inhabit all of the different biomes within the ocean, but what is really cool about sea turtles is that people like them. People are moved by the connection they have with large, charismatic vertebrates like sea turtles, whales, elephants, pandas, tigers, and more. That makes them great flagship or icon species; they help us tell stories. SWOT [the network of researchers and conservationists involved in assessing the status of the world’s seven sea turtle species and the threats they face, and in producing the annual SWOT Report] is about building a global network of people committed to a common cause, but it is also about generating stories and themes that we can use to influence people and attempt to change their behaviors.
If Blue Habits discovers important behavioral science findings that could impact conservation in general, will they be showcased on the Oceanic Society’s web site?
Yes. We are making great progress, but we do not have a lot online yet.
In addition to looking at how to extend the spike in conservation motivation that occurs on a nature travel experience, are you thinking about how to introduce or replicate such a spike for people who may not be able to afford or access a nature travel experience?
The mission of the Oceanic Society is to conserve marine habitats and wildlife by deepening the connections between people and nature. We have found that the best way to deepen those connections is to put people in nature, and we do that every way we can. [The Oceanic Society offers many types of expeditions in a variety of destinations around the world.] But you’re right; not everyone can take a snorkeling trip to Palau. There is no one solution that can address everyone at once, so we work with one audience at a time. We pick audiences that we can reach, and then work our way toward those that are not so easy to reach.
There are a few myths we need to get past in the conservation community. One is that the simple act of making people aware in itself changes behavior. Any social scientist will tell you that it doesn’t. If you smoke cigarettes, it is likely that you already know smoking is not good for you or the people around you, but that doesn’t mean you will stop smoking. There is a good deal of habit changing that has to happen to turn awareness into action, and changing habits can be slow and difficult. One more nature video, Facebook post, pamphlet, or television program might momentarily motivate people, but until we start focusing on holding people’s hands and giving them the behavioral tools they need to move from awareness to actual action, we are not doing conservation.
Another myth is that broad scale behavior change takes years, and that our only hope is to educate kids now and hope that they will be better stewards of the oceans as adults. That certainly doesn’t hurt, but behavior change can happen fast, and indeed it needs to happen fast if the oceans are going to continue to support human survival. One only need to look at how good marketing campaigns succeed with a single well-placed ad or campaign, to see that consumer behavior can rapidly change. We need to put that kind of marketing power to work, not jut to sell soft drinks or cars or the newest smart phone, but to sell new behaviors on a broad scale to impact things like our daily actions relating to plastic use, for instance, or how we consume sea life, who we put in public office, or the amount of carbon we all produce.
Another myth is that if you want to change the world, you have to change the whole world at once. A lot of people say, “You’re only impacting 2000 whale watchers per year with Blue Habits, but there are seven billion people in the world, so how are your efforts going to make a difference?” or “If you’re not impacting China and India, how is that going to change the world?” I think [those skeptics] underestimate the power of changing one heart at a time. If I can send you home with a permanently altered set of behaviors—if you alone stop using plastic water bottles, refuse drinking straws, and start carrying canvas bags to the grocery store—I think that has an enormous impact. You then influence your circle of friends, and they influence theirs, etc. in an ever-expanding, exponential way, and that is how social epidemics happen. I believe that the exponential impact of influencing one person at a time or one community at a time, will eventually have a broad societal impact.
What can you tell me about the power of a sea turtle nature travel experience, both in terms of the tourist and the communities in which the tours are taking place?
It is unquestionable that when people see a sea turtle it changes them. When I ask my own colleagues why they work on sea turtles, they may initially say “Turtles are good indicators of this or that” or something akin to “they are very important to my research on stable isotopes,” or the like. But if I keep pushing and ask, “Why sea turtles?” I almost always ultimately get the answer, “I think turtles are cool. I just love them.” They tug at the heartstrings. They impact biophilia—our innate connection to nature. Being face to face with a sea turtle can bring you to tears. I have seen this many times, and it has happened to me many times.
When you take people out to turtle beaches, you are interfering with the natural cycles of the turtle, but if you do it right–you don’t disturb the turtles, you allow nesting to happen; you work with tourism operators, and you assure that the tourism itself doesn’t wind up creating large hotels with glaring lights on beaches–you minimize those impacts to the point where the access people have to turtles, which moves them, is more powerful than the impact that they have on the turtles.
[The Oceanic Society partners with organizations like SEE Turtles, which promotes community-based conservation through ecotourism and other initiatives. This video helps provide a sense of the type of conservation-based nature travel experiences offered through the Oceanic Society.]
The State of the World’s Sea Turtles Program (SWOT) produced a very impressive, interactive map of global sea turtle data. How did that come to be?
I had been doing sea turtle work off and on since I was a teenager, but up until 2003, I had never been a full-time sea turtle person. I was with Conservation International, doing big scale conservation stuff like identifying global Hotspots and Major Wilderness Areas, Megadiversity Countries, Wildlife Spectacles and such. In 2003, some colleagues came to me and said, “Rod, you’re a turtle guy. We need someone to head the Marine Turtle Specialist Group at the IUCN. Will you do that?” At the same time, I was asked to serve as the president of the International Sea Turtle Society, the organization that hosts the big, annual Sea Turtle Symposium. I said to my bosses “If you allow me to spend some of my time on [these two opportunities] I can put us on the map as leaders in sea turtles.” They said, “Go!”
At that point, I took a step back and asked, if we want to save the world’s sea turtles, what do we need to know? First was knowing how many sea turtles there were and where they were. I realized that we didn’t have any of that data on a global scale. We had some good regional datasets, like the Mediterranean and Caribbean, but we had enormous gaps for places like the Indian Ocean. No one was looking at these globally ranging animals at a global scale, and the global scale is the only one that makes sense for sea turtles. This was at a time when the Internet had come along and allowed us to communicate with the world, and large relational databases were becoming popular. So I said, “Let’s create the first ever comprehensive, global-scale database compiling all of the geographic information we can get from all species of sea turtles. That became the mission statement of SWOT.
At the outset, a lot of people said, “People are never going to share their data.” We thought, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” So we decided to start with just one species: the leatherback. We thought we’d ask everyone on Earth that we could find who monitors turtles on beaches to give us one season’s worth of abundance data. We picked up the phone, sent emails, met people at meetings, and asked, “How many turtles nested on your beach last year?” We put that information in a database at Duke University and in 2006, we published the first-ever comprehensive map of leatherback turtle nesting (SWOT Report, Vol 1). We took it with us to the Sea Turtle Symposium and put the map up on wall so everyone could look at it. That’s when a bunch of people came along and said, “You missed my beach!” and we said, “We’ll do it again if you give us your data, and it will get better over the years.” Year two we added loggerheads; year three hawksbills; year four flatbacks; year five both species of ridley; and year six was green turtles. With each subsequent data layer we published the first ever, global-scale map of distribution.
After nesting beach data, we added the global telemetry initiative in about 2010. The idea was to capture data about turtles at sea. We partnered with seaturtle.org, which has an amazing tool called STAT that allows you to put your raw telemetry data up on the web site and they track the turtles for you in real time. So as people were sharing data with STAT, they started sharing with SWOT as well. That allowed us to do our first published map of telemetry data of the green turtle in Volume 6 of the SWOT Report.
All of the data on the SWOT database at Duke is part of a bigger global system called OBIS-SEAMAP (Ocean Biographic Information System Spatial Ecological Analysis of Megavertebrate Populations). So if you want to do an assessment of habitat viability, for example, you can go to the SWOT database and get access to broad scale data, and if you want to get down to very raw data, all you have to do is ask the specific data contributors, and if they give permission, you can access that, too.
Might there be a time when specific threats, such as erosion, known areas of trash, armored beaches, or even data like rates of entanglement might be incorporated into the map?
Yes. That is why it is so important to understand that SWOT is a node of OBIS-SEAMAP. OBIS is a global scale biogeographic system for data management on everything related to the ocean. That allows you to do GIS overlays with, say, fisheries impact, seagrass distribution, coral reefs, or even different species. By doing those sorts of overlays we’ll be able to refine conservation solutions for turtles, and make our turtle data part of efforts to help others approach conservation from different angles such as reducing fisheries impacts.
Over the years, you see more and more students using SWOT data to do thesis projects. In fact, if you walk around the poster presentations at the annual Sea Turtle Symposium, you’ll see the SWOT logo on all kinds of stuff. I walked up to some young students at the last symposium and I said, “It’s great that you used SWOT data. I’ve worked on SWOT since the beginning back in 2003.” They said, “Really, you mean it hasn’t always been there? Wow, we can’t imagine what it would be like to not have SWOT!” For me, that was the greatest validation that we’re doing something important.
Can you share an example of how that the SWOT database was used to inform conservation action/decision making?
As you know, for the past 12 years, I have been the co-chair of the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group, which is part of the Species Survival Commission. The main role of all of the Specialists Groups is to ensure that the species they are in charge of are appropriately Red Listed. The IUCN has worked long and hard, over decades, to produce the criteria for determining Red List status. These criteria have to work for everything from plants to whales, and everything from mollusks to black-footed ferrets. It’s the accepted global standard for measuring an organisms susceptibility to extinction.
As you can imagine, these criteria don’t work perfectly for everything. When I took over the Marine Turtle Specialist Group, one of the biggest complaints was that we were spending a lot of time doing Red List assessments that were not very useful for conservation. If you have a species level assessment for something like the leatherback turtle, you know that it is critically endangered on a global scale. But if you are a conservationist, you need to know where to start acting. The leatherback turtle is one of the most widespread species on Earth. It exists in every major ocean basin, pan-tropically and up into the Arctic Circle, so knowing it is critically endangered on a global scale is not a particularly useful datum.
So we [on the Marine Turtle Specialist Group] asked ourselves, “What is the most reasonable scale that we need to be able to understand the level of risk of extinction?” For six years, we gathered annually for what we called “burning issues” meetings, and we used SWOT data, which was improving on a regular basis, to determine where the turtles were and in what abundance. To that we added information about genetics (from both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA), from tag returns, and from lots of other sources. We put together a group of experts in sea turtle biology and conservation to provide expert opinion, and together we defined what we called “Regional Management Units (RMUs)”. Then we were poised for the first time, to apply Red List criteria not just at the global scale, but separately to all seven of the RMUs for leatherbacks. As a result, the global Red List assessment dropped form Critically Endangered to Vulnerable, but some of the RMUs—the ones where we most need conservation action—remained Critically Endangered. And in the process we learned that some RMUs were actually Data Deficient, and thus are areas where we need to redouble basic biogeogaphical research.
Since the global Red List status dropped from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable, people ask, “is the leatherback safe then?” Well, it’s safe in some places, but not in others. We learned that the Eastern Pacific population is beyond critically endangered; it’s teetering on the brink of extinction. The Western Pacific is not far behind. The Southwest Indian Ocean population—same thing. We also learned in the Northeast Indian Ocean and Southeast Atlantic subpopulations, that we don’t have enough information to even figure it out. But we also learned that in places like the north Atlantic, where conservation has been very actively pursued for decades, the population is doing pretty well.
Roderic Mast with a leatherback
As a conservationist, this kind of information is way more valuable to me. It tells me that every penny and ounce of manpower I have for leatherback conservation better be focused on conservation solutions in the Eastern and Western Pacific, and filling data gaps in places like the Northeast Indian Ocean and the Southeast Atlantic.
What other species of sea turtles have been broken into RMUs?
In 2010, we published a paper that shows RMUs for all seven species. (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0024510) So far the leatherback and loggerhead are the only species listed in the IUCN Red List along with their RMU-scale assessments, but the other five species will be in there soon enough.
What gaps in knowledge/research would you like to see filled first?
Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata)
There are areas of the world where a lot of RMUs come up data deficient. That’s where I’d start. We have already done some of this. Back in early 2004, we had a “burning issues” meeting that people were resisting because they didn’t have enough data to define the priorities. I said, “Forget data for a minute, and give me your expert opinion. Tell me what you think the priorities are in terms of understanding turtle populations that might be at greatest threat.” We came up with a list, and on this list was the question of what’s happening with hawksbills in the [Pacific coastal region of the Americas]. Have they gone extinct? Are they going the way of the leatherback?
That sat there as a question mark. Since it was on a list, and there are people out there in the world who are looking for research projects to do, a young guy named Alex Gaos saw it and said, “If no one knows anything about this, I’ll go figure it out.” He basically walked all the beaches, talked to all the people, [and in the process discovered active hawksbill nesting and foraging grounds]. He found out that there were more hawksbills out there than we thought there were. He then started ICAPO, a hawksbill conservation organization. If we hadn’t identified that data gap, put it on a list and encouraged this young man to start that effort, it may never have happened.
Alex Gaos conducting hawksbill research
Another interesting article in SWOT about the Miskitu Indians of eastern coastal Nicaragua, known as the “Turtle People,” because for hundreds of years, they have fished green sea turtles, and the Nicaraguan law permits subsistence fishing of green sea turtles. What is the key to conservation success when working with communities in which the animal you are trying to conserve is so deeply connected to their economy, culture, and diet?
You find a middle ground. There is no need for the Miskitus to have to depend on sea turtles as their only protein resource in the 21st century, but that said, I wouldn’t want to take away from them the value that these animals have in traditional ceremonies. It’s a whole lot different to have turtle on the dinner table seven days a week than it is to have turtle as part of a traditional ceremony when your daughter gets married. You have to try to find a way to maintain traditions without having to turn the turtle into a commodity. It’s not reasonable to go to a traditional community—whether it’s in Nicaragua or Hawaii—and say “you cannot do this ever” when they may have been doing it for centuries. .
In your opinion, and with your global perspective, can you think of one success in sea turtle conservation that has been the most impactful? What about a failure that has provided the greatest lesson?
The biggest success story is that beach protection works. There are many stories that illustrate this. The most poignant is at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, where they have had 30+ years of protection. If you keep people, development, and lights off the beaches and you leave everything alone and let turtles do what they do naturally, they bounce back. In that part of Florida, green sea turtles have increased something like 400%.
Unfortunately, I think the TED story is one that has taught us a lot of lessons. We learned that you can’t just make people aware, give them a technological tool, and expect them to use it. The process of behavior change is much more socially complex and drawn out than we initially thought. That is why I’m turning to behavior change as a principle theme to my work.
Many of our readers may be involved in projects related to coastal resilience (e.g., designing living shorelines, planning sustainable communities), coastal habitat restoration, or coastal/waterfront redevelopment. Do you have any advice for them, when it comes to protecting endangered and threatened sea turtles? Can you recommend any design guidelines, or reference any examples of coastal design done well in terms of sea turtles?
Florida has plenty of great examples. To the extent that you can minimize human impact on traditional turtle nesting sites, the turtles will continue to nest there. It is possible to have a beach resort and not have bright lights pointing out to the ocean. Florida has very advanced lighting regulations. They’ve found ways to use beaches for humans and turtles. It doesn’t have to be a one or the other scenario. As far as management is concerned, the best thing you can do is just leave the turtles alone. Let them nest, and protect those nests. Use the animals as educational tools without interfering with them, and engage people in protecting them. That will be good for turtles and people.