Sea Turtle Baby Boom Breaks Records

More than a million green turtle eggs were laid last year on one of the Turtle Islands in the Philippines.

A female turtle lays around 100 eggs per nesting, and hatchlings emerge after 7-12 weeks. Credit: A.G. Saño More than a million green turtle eggs were laid last year on one of the Turtle Islands in the Philippines, breaking at least three records since recording of nesting there started in 1984, according to Conservation International.

The eggs were laid on Baguan Island, which is protected as a turtle sanctuary. Conservation efforts on the island must be working.

Each morning on Baguan Island, Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary, the beach still shows the tracks the turtles make as they crawl across the sand to lay their eggs. Credit: A.G. Saño CI reports that a total of 14,220 green turtle nests were recorded in Baguan in 2011, breaking the previous record of 12,311 nests in 1995. The 2011 figures translate to 2,844 nesting green turtles and 1.44 million turtle eggs laid.

Female turtles crawl out of the water, usually at night, to dig a nest and lay their eggs. The entire process can take one to two hours. Turtles reach sexual maturity between 20 and 50 years old, and can live up to 200 years. Credit: A.G. Saño "1.44 million eggs is an astounding number and it presents great hope for boosting green turtle populations," Romeo Trono, CI Philippines Country Executive Director, was quoted as saying in a press release. "With an average of 90% hatching success and 1% survival rate up to sexual maturity, Baguan in 2011 alone could contribute 13,000 to the adult turtle population."

A one percent survival rate sounds pretty awful, so it's no wonder so many eggs are required to maintain a stable population of these turtles.

After emerging from their nests, hatchlings immediately make their way to sea, starting a journey that may take them right back to where they hatched, where they will then lay their own eggs. Credit: A.G. Saño The 36-hectare Baguan in southern Philippines is one of the nine islands of the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area (TIHPA), a unique protected area jointly managed by two countries: Malaysia and the Philippines. It is made up of six islands of the Philippines' Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary, where Baguan is located, and three islands of Sabah's Turtle Islands Park (TIP).

Baguan's nesting records have been declining and dropped to as low as just over 4,000 nests in 2003. Poaching by foreign fishermen, egg harvesting by local communities for food and trade, destruction and disturbance of habitats through illegal fishing methods and weak law enforcement were identified as the causes of the decline in the sea turtle population in the sanctuary.

"The increasing nest numbers show that when turtles are protected on their nesting beaches and in the water for long enough, they will recover," said Bryan Wallace, director of science for the Marine Flagship Species Program at CI. "The Turtle Islands are a globally important area for green turtles, especially for the West Pacific population, because of the relatively high abundance present and because of increasing protections for turtles in the area."

Often conservationists can formulate good plans, but poor enforcement weakens them. That did not happen in this case. The team at Baguan wisely provided training to park wardens, law enforcers and community volunteers. They also stepped up patrolling efforts. The Philippine Turtle Islands' enforcement team even includes officers from the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine Navy Marines deployed to the area.

Wardens assigned to the sanctuary live in the Turtle Islands field station for months at a time, patrolling against poachers and doing data monitoring activities like turtle tagging. Credit: Conservation International/photo by Rina Bernabe "These partnerships with other agencies like the Coast Guard and Marines provide a big boost to law enforcement efforts in the Turtle Islands," said Mundita Lim, director of DENR's Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau. "We also enjoy a good working relationship with our Sabah counterparts in charge of managing their side of the Turtle Islands. Turtles nest throughout the entire area, regardless of political boundaries. That is also the approach we are using in managing these islands through productive partnerships."

Turtles can be a prime ecotourism attraction, and it is hoped that in future, tourism income will help support conservation efforts for Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary. Credit: A.G. Saño