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Bring on the turtles...

Nature lovers rejoice as marine turtles make a comeback: with one specimen laying eggs in Malta for the first time since 1960. But as Bianca Caruana discovers, turtles weren’t always given such a warm welcome

Bianca Caruana
28 June 2012, 12:00am
Up until 20 years ago, marine turtles were a delicacy in Malta with turtle stew making it to many a menu and fishermen selling them along the coastlines.
After news that a loggerhead sea turtle laid a number of eggs at Gnejna last Thursday, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority declared the bay to be an Emergency Conservation Area (ECA) and issued an emergency conservation order to protect the eggs.

Interest in this phenomenon has been noticeably high, with Nature Trust Malta members noting that even non-members have responded to a call for volunteers to 'guard' the eggs.

MEPA noted this event as the first confirmed sea turtle nesting event in Malta in almost a century... but Dr Alan Deidun, a marine biologist and researcher, says the last reported nesting was considerably more recent.

"Actually, the last reported nesting on a local beach is closer to home, and dates back to 1960. In fact, we published a paper in a local scientific journal over five years ago [together with tutor Professor Patrick Schembri], The Central Mediterranean Naturalist, in which we documented the nesting of a loggerhead turtle at Ramla tal-Mixquqa, Golden Bay, in 1960," he says.

Jeffrey Sciberras, Flora Conservation Officer of Nature Trust Malta, says that the loggerhead turtle is the most 'common' turtle in the Mediterranean.

"The last time a turtle laid eggs in Malta was 60 years ago at Ramla il-Hamra in Gozo, I think. I know they breed annually on the islands of Lampedusa and Linosa, the North African 'Pelagian Islands', which is the closest archipelago to Malta.

"It could be this turtle was of 'Pelagian' stock, or one which was released from Gnejna after recuperation earlier this year," Sciberras believes.

Deidun says he had interviewed the individuals who observed the event at Golden Bay in 1960 but "for some reason", MEPA refers to the nesting on Comino at the start of the 20th century as the last, "even though they are fully aware if our study."

An interesting point to note in this paper was that one observer of the turtle nesting at Golden Bay told Deidun and Schembri that when the egg laying was complete, the observers dug out some 50 to 100 eggs.

"The eggs and turtle were collected and eventually consumed. Our informant also remarked that the beach in question was completely dark in those days and was only lit when necessary by means of a generator," they say.

Up until 20 years ago, marine turtles were a delicacy in Malta with turtle stew making it to many a menu and fishermen selling them along the coastlines.

"You might know that in the past, a lot of wild animals, including turtles, where eaten as a source of food, or where prized by hunters, or by fishermen," Sciberras says.

Since then, marine turtles have been listed in schedules and annexes of a number of European, regional and local environmental legislation which means protection at the highest levels resulting in hefty fines pegged to their consumption.

"But a lot of large wild animals, and even small ones, are treated as precious species for the ecology and for the environment in general, due to the importance of biodiversity taught in today's society. There has been a shift in culture and attitude towards biodiversity," Sciberras says.

Deidun says that rather than a culture change, he would actually praise the introduction of financial dissuasion coupled with enforcement and educational campaigns.

"All of these have bolstered the charismatic profiled of turtles locally, such that they have now become an iconic species and no one would dream of harming turtles," Deidun says.

Sciberras agrees that the mentality has definitely changed over the last 15 years and a big step has been made as environmental education in schools is given more importance.

"Moreover, apart from the success of voluntary guarding the eggs, a lot of people also 'adopted' a turtle, thanks to the Adoption Campaign created by Nature Trust, sponsored by Air Malta, to help the San Lucjan facility in Marsaxlokk in financial needs to take care of the injured turtles," he says.

However, Deidun explains that such a decrease in the number of nestings does not necessarily mean that turtles have disappeared.

"It basically means that beaches amenable to support a nesting - lack of light and noise pollution, lack of recreational vessels, lack of human presence and development - have declined dramatically," he says.

In fact, coastal development, especially ribbon coastal development and coastal urbanisation, has surged upwards dramatically since the 1960s, as well as the number of recreational vessels.

Could there be a connection between this latest turtle and the increasing number of jellyfish on our shores?

If there is, it's marginal according to Deidun who explains that even though turtles consume jellyfish, many jellyfish species are not the preferred food resource for most turtle species.

Bathers may be disappointed to find out that the upsurge in jellyfish being witnessed around the world is mainly due to other more factors, namely over-fishing, global warming resulting in the tropicalisation of the Mediterranean Sea, pollution and the increase in artificial walls in the waters such as jetties, wharves, breakwaters, which are synergistically stressing the oceans.

This does not mean that the turtle does not have ecological importance the marine environment and Deidun explains that an important premise to make is that some of the ecological functions of marine turtles cannot be fully understood these days because they only become evident when the same turtles are present in large abundances.

"Since many marine turtle species have declined in recent years, they may be thwarted from fulfilling their full ecological roles," he says.

However, it is widely acknowledged that marine turtles are important to help balance marine food webs by feeding on gelatinous plankton, for instance, facilitate nutrient transfer from the sea to the land, by nesting on beaches as well as provide a habitat - mainly their back - for a number of marine species, including barnacles.

"Specifically for Maltese coastal waters, marine turtles are important to help maintain healthy seagrass called Neptune grass - Posidonia oceanica," Deidun says.

This turtle species tend to lay their eggs between late June and early July which hatch in September and Malta is topographically similar and geologically identical to Lampedusa.

"All in all, whatever the biology behind it, this natural event really was a boost for environmental awareness. People have to see these things, not just learn about them to truly appreciate them. Once appreciation has been achieved, environmental participation and activism follows," Sciberras says.

But what exactly threatens the eggs' success rate?

"Man is almost the exclusive threat to nesting of turtles on local beaches," Deidun says, "The eggs are in fact resistant to other species, as long as they are in a burrow under the sand surface, at a long enough distance from the shore."

Man's best friends, dogs, also pose a threat since they might dig the eggs out. "But the hatchlings are normally very vulnerable to predators, such as shore birds, during their short but frantic scramble for the sea, but I guess there isn't much risk of this in Malta," he jokes.

So, what about drunken security guards urinating next to the eggs? Maltastar.com had reported that a security guard posed a risk to the eggs while on duty at the ECA in Gnejna during a drunken episode by shining car lights onto the beach and urinating close to the nest.

How big a threat is this in reality?

Deidun says that such isolated incidents can be written off so long as direct physical contact with the eggs is not made and as long as they are low-intensity.

"However, prolonged disturbance, no matter how low-key, will obviously be detrimental. The absence of extraneous light is especially important during and immediately after the hatching," he explains.

As someone who has long campaigned against BBQs involving loud music from "gargantuan speakers", offroading on beaches, caravans and the like on beaches, Deidun refers to a post he had made on his own Facebook page.

"It had to take a turtle nesting, a once in a 50-years events, to make us realise that we should act responsibly towards others when we frequent beaches, especially at night - thank goodness for the turtle," he writes.

He asks, "Why did we have to wait for such a momentous event to pass such provisions? Mela there was no will to actually keep the bullies and the uncouth away from Gnejna?"

If there is a pattern emerging from all this, Deidun hopes for more turtles to nest on other beaches so as to be freed from "offroaders, pumping music, and all that goes with riff-raff and the uncouth.

"Bring on the turtles," he says.

Similarly, Sciberras comments on the fact it took a "turtle's initiative" to encourage people to safeguard the environment of Gnejna.

b farrugia
We should start restoring what we once had, ie we should see whether it is possible to obtain a number of turtle eggs and allow them to incubate and hatch on other beaches in Malta ie Ramla Hamra, there is no light and the place is much quieter.