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The Hope of the Hawksbill Turtle: How We Can Save The Critically Endangered Species in Hawaii

by Angeline Longshore


It’s the dark of night. Maria Taylor and her two young boys are out unusually late on Maluaka beach in Maui, Hawaii.

The three are on a critical mission, staying up all night searching the sand for turtle tracks, specifically hawksbill sea turtle footprints along with a handful of volunteers with the Hawaii Wildlife Fund’s Sea Turtle Recovery Project.

“It’s a dire situation”, says Hannah Bernard, executive director of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund (HWF). “Sea turtles only nest in the summer, crawling up onto our South Maui beaches to lay their eggs in the warm sand. The critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle species is not recovering as well as green sea turtles. Both have been protected as endangered species for about 40 years, but there are about 4,000 greens in Hawaii and there are only about two hundred hawksbills [to be found in all of the Hawaiian Islands]. That’s how rare they are.”

sea turtle

Hope, a female Hawksbill (Honu’ea) of South Maui.

sea turtle

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Pacific Islands regional office, hawksbill sea turtles were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on July 28, 1978. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) also listed hawksbills as endangered in 1968 and elevated their status to critically endangered in 1996.

“Each year on Maui, we usually only see one nesting female per year. Many people don’t know about hawksbills and that they are critically endangered” says Luke Sundquist, HWF’s Sea Turtle Recovery Project Manager. In the Hawaiian Islands, the majority of hawksbills nest on the big island of Hawaii, yet Sundquist talks about the significance of turtle recovery on Maui. “Since there are so few, every “one” matters. Each hatchling we face can contribute to the population.”

Sundquist and his team oversee the overnight beach campouts. The team leads volunteers like Maria Taylor and her children to patrol South Maui turtle nesting beaches hourly on foot. When a turtle is spotted, they watch from a distance with night vision scopes making sure the turtle remains undisturbed. The group returns to the nesting spot two months later to assist hatchlings into the ocean. There are many obstacles for new born turtles trying to make their way to the ocean. The hatchlings can get trapped in beach debris, become disoriented by coastal lighting, or become prey to cats, dogs, birds, mongoose or crabs.

Assisting the success of the nesting turtle and the survival of each baby turtle requires thousands of volunteer hours. This continued effort is what it will take to help increase the population. Each nesting turtle will lay about 180 eggs and return to the same region every two to eight years. Each female can lay 1-6 nests in a season approximately 20 days apart. Roughly two hundred recovery project volunteers take overnight shifts during the June through September summer nesting seasons. Sundquist says the Hawaii Wildlife Fund’s turtle recovery project efforts over twenty-two years have made a difference, but we are not seeing more adult hawksbill turtles nesting yet because it takes 15 to 40 years for a hawksbill to be ready to reproduce.

sea turtle

The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle (Honu).

How Did The Hawksbill Sea Turtle Become Endangered?

Shell Harvesting
The hawksbill shell has been described as the “world’s first plastic”, easily moldable, durable material.  For that reason, the beautifully patterned shells were in high demand, harvested to be made into internationally coveted “tortoise shell” jewelry, brushes, combs and decorative furniture inlays. According to IUCN this shell harvesting is the main reason the hawksbill sea turtle population has declined more than 80% in the last century.

Egg and Meat Harvesting
While green sea turtle meat and eggs were more commonly consumed, hawksbills have also been known to be a source of food for Pacific Island cultures. Hawksbill meat eating has been less prevalent since their endangered protection status, and also because the meat has become poisonous to humans due to hawksbills feeding on sea sponges, which scientist say have become increasingly inexplicably more toxic.

Other reasons for the decline of their species:

  • Loss of habitat from beach erosion by increased human presence
  • Ocean-front development has affected the health of the coral reef and loss of foliage where hawksbills prefer to nest
  • Accidental bycatch or entanglement with fishing gear
  • Ingestion of ocean debris
  • Nesting area obstructions of trash and debris
  • Urban and agricultural runoff
  • Climate change and sea level rise affecting habitats, sex ratios, nesting success, hatchling survival
  • Hybridization with other turtle species where hawksbill populations are low

Natural predators of hawksbills are sharks, octopus, crocodiles and large fish. None of these predators have affected the decline of the species as much as humans.

Why Are Hawksbill Sea Turtles More Critically Endangered Than Green Sea Turtles?

“Hawksbills are not recovering at the speed that the green sea turtles have. They look very similar, but they are different,” explains Bernard. Green sea turtle species eat seaweed which is abundant and not dependent upon the health of the reef. Hawksbills [using their unique hawk-like beaks] eat sea sponges, fireworms, crab, and other invertebrates [plucking them out of crevices in the coral reef]. Hawksbills are in the same habitat as the green turtles, but more dependent on the health of the coral reef.”

Why Should The Hawksbill Sea Turtle Be Saved?

Bernard says the condition of our planet’s environment can be determined by looking at the health of sea turtles. Sea turtles have been in existence for over 100 million years. (Yep, they’re prehistoric creatures who lived on earth with dinosaurs.) “These guys [hawksbill sea turtles] are like a canary in a coal mine. They are an indicator species that is telling us something is still not okay.”

Hawksbill Sea Turtles are also what is known as a keystone species, where the extinction of one species can cause the loss of many others because of complex interactions of nature.
Hawksbills help maintain the health of the coral reefs. They eat sponges from the reef’s surface which provides better access for fish and other reef dwellers to survive while green sea turtles graze on seagrass which makes those grass beds more productive. Together, these grazing activities help the diversity of sea life in the coral reef stay in balance. If hawksbill sea turtles were to become extinct, the imbalance would cause a chain of events, weakening the marine and beach ecosystem, and ultimately affecting the health of our planet and human life.

Bernard believes that educating people about the hawksbills and the fragility of our ecosystem is urgent. “We need people to understand the importance of taking care of our coral reef because they are dying and they are the base of our food chain and a healthy ecosystem. Without the health of our reefs everything collapses.”

Kai Kanani and Hawaii Wildlife Fund Partner For Education and Ocean Conservation

Fifteen years ago, the owner and General Manager of Kai Kanani Sailing, Roger Gildersleeve created a partnership with Hawaii Wildlife Fund, hiring Bernard to train him and his company crew to become certified naturalists. With human impact being the main source of degradation to the ocean, he knew his best recourse was to invest in educating people on protecting the ocean.

Captain Roger seized the opportunity with Hawaii Wildlife Fund, and turned his luxury catamaran ocean excursions into a multi-layered experience. Kai Kanani became an educational platform for marine conservation with Hannah Bernard, a 35-year marine biologist on-board several times a week. Additionally, Kai Kanani crew members are trained as certified naturalists, an unprecedented conservation commitment in Maui’s ocean tourism industry.

Crew members start off with a three-day certification course and get continual education twice weekly with Bernard educating tour passengers as they enjoy a day on the ocean.

Bernard says for the decade and a half of partnership with Kai Kanani, the numbers of people they’ve reached are staggering.

“That’s 20,000 people [approximately each year] who are getting direct education on how to behave around wildlife that may not get it any other way. There is not anything like this in Hawaii. They are providing an educational outreach service, teaching people every single day, twice a day.”

Maria Taylor reflects on how Captain Roger became involved with Hawaii Wildlife Fund. “My father, he always believed that you need to do your part and be a good steward of the environment. So he was really active and a founding member of the Maui Reef Fund. He led the charge to stop fish feeding. He was very active in very quiet ways like that, and he liked what the Hawaii Wildlife Fund was doing.”

Since Captain Roger passed away in 2017, his daughter, Maria Taylor, says ocean conservation is even more of an important legacy for her, her family and the Kai Kanani Sailing company to continue to uphold.

“It’s not just a beautiful day on a yacht, some drinks and a gentle Hawaiian breeze, although that’s part of it. There are so many layers to what we do at Kai Kanani.”

“It starts from our crew being on the beach first thing in the morning and doing dawn patrol looking for turtle tracks right there on Maluaka beach, to anytime we see a hawksbill to documenting it and calling it into the researchers so their research can be more effective, and educating people how to live harmoniously amongst these creatures.”

Kai Kanani’s mission moving forward under Maria‘s direction is multi-layered with passion for her father’s legacy as well as her own personal beliefs as a mother and a former nurse-midwife, focused on health of people and the planet throughout her life. “The reason we carry it forward is because it (the ocean) needs us to so desperately and it would be just reckless to turn a blind eye to what’s going on in the world environmentally. From this little region in South Maui, we want Kai Kanani to lead the way, we want to be leaders in our community, leaders on this island, in this state and globally.

And then she said more lightly, looking from the perspective of what tour guests experience, “There’s so many layers and it all culminates in just a beautiful day on the water with food and drinks and fun with family.”

What Can We Do To Help Hawksbill Turtles Survive

In Nesting Areas
• Keep nesting beaches dark and safe for sea turtles.
• Do not disturb nesting turtles or hatchlings.
• Participate in sea turtle nesting watches.
• Fill holes and knock down sand castles before you leave the beach.
• Reduce ocean and beach debris that can entangle or be accidentally eaten by turtles.
• Keep a 10 to 20 foot distance away when observing turtles.
• Volunteer for a beach clean up or nesting protection campout.

In the Ocean
• Watch for sea turtles in the water. Stay 10 to 20 feet away to give them space.
• Do not attempt to feed sea turtles.
• Do not abandon fishing gear. Turtles can get entangled in hooks, lines and nets. Use barbless circle hooks

• Reduce using plastics which end up in the ocean.
• Use reef safe sunscreen to keep coral reefs healthy (mandatory by Hawaii law in 2021).
• Reduce amount of chemicals you use. Chemicals used on your lawn and around the home can wash into the ocean killing plants and sea creatures. Use biodegradable alternatives.
• Become part of the solution: Be conscious of daily actions that can cause environmental pollution.
• Teach your children to be environmentally conscious and to care for the ocean.

“I find that people don’t know what they should be caring about unless you show them, unless they have an experience with nature, and understand that everyday choices make a difference”, says Maria based on her life growing up around ocean tourism with her father being a renowned Maui waterman, philanthropist and conservationist. “Hannah has been so instrumental in teaching our staff how to be able to communicate that and educate them about the amazing variety of wildlife that they are seeing, and so that way people can take this home with them and make differences in their life.”

Just as Maria’s father exposed her to a life of taking care of the ocean, Maria saw her son Noah take such care during the beach campout to make sure the sand was smooth so that a baby turtle wouldn’t get turned upside down. She said the experience was invaluable for him to feel the responsibility and emotional involvement of doing his part to help keep the hawksbill species alive.
Maria says with great respect and love for the ocean, “It’s a symbiotic relationship, that we have this fragile ecosystem that is just beautiful and it really impacts all the ecosystems around the world. And if we can make a difference here, we really have a worldwide impact. And so that idea of doing what you can in your little corner of the world to be a part of the bigger picture, that is what brought me to be involved with Hawaii Wildlife Fund. And then as I took over for my father, it has become incredibly important for me to continue that vision and grow it.” Each one of us can be part of the solution to save the hawksbill species and indirectly ultimately, that is saving the world.

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