Six species of sea turtle nest in the Wider Caribbean Region (WCR). In partnership with more than 120 Data Providers, the spatial database of nesting habitat herein assembled is the most comprehensive for any region of the world, with 1,311 nesting beaches identified in 43 WCR nations and territories, inclusive of Bermuda to the north and Brazil to the south. Because some sites host nesting by multiple species, 2,535 species-specific sites are named. Of these, 77% are categorized in terms of abundance: <25, 25-100, 100-500, 500-1,000, or >1,000 nesting crawls per year. Hawksbill and green turtles are the least known, with 33% and 24%, respecttively, of all known nesting sites associated with unknown crawl abundances.
Large nesting colonies are rare. Nesting grounds receiving more than 1,000 crawls per year range from 0.4% (hawksbill) to 7.0% (Kemp’s ridley) of all known species-specific sites. For any species, roughly half of all known nesting sites support fewer than 25 crawls (fewer than 10 reproductively active females) per year. While some nations are making exemplary progress in identifying and monitoring nesting stocks, consistent sea turtle population monitoring effort is still lacking in most areas and recent data are scarce in some jurisdictions; two archipelagic States (Bahamas, St. Vincent and the Grenadines) and Hispaniola (Dominican Republic, Haiti) have never been completely assessed.
The regulatory landscape is fragmented. Thirty (69.8%) nations and territories prohibit sea turtle exploitation year-around: 29 of 43 jurisdictions mandate indefinite protection (eight of these allow exemptions for ‘traditional’ exploitation), while Anguilla has adopted a moratorium set to expire in 2020. With the exception of the Cayman Islands, legal sea turtle fisheries are based on minimum size limits (by weight or shell length), targeting large juveniles and adults in contradistinction to the best available science on management and recovery.
Threats matrices characterizing a range of risk factors, including those that result in the loss or degradation of critical habitat, reveal that beach erosion, nest loss to predators or physical factors, artificial beachfront lighting, direct exploitation of turtles and eggs, and pollution threaten the survival of sea turtles at their nesting grounds in more than 75% of all WCR nations and territories. With regard to factors potentially hindering population recovery at foraging grounds, more than 75% of Caribbean nations and territories cite pollution, fisheries bycatch, entanglement, coral reef and/or seagrass degradation, and losses to hunters, poachers and natural predators as threatening the survival of sea turtles at sea.
The data collected and assembled will allow for further research and analysis of sea turtle abundance (including population trends at index sites) and habitat use; for example, in conjunction with other datasets to determine areas of high biodiversity or areas in need of urgent protection. The database, archived and displayed online by OBIS-SEAMAP (http://seamap.env.duke.edu/), will be updated regularly and used to establish conservation and management priorities, and to inform and improve policy at national and regional levels. Future goals of the project are to research and incorporate seagrass and coral reef data to determine nationally and regionally significant foraging areas, thus identifying marine areas in need of management attention and contributing to the development of a network of population monitoring programs, including juvenile and adult age classes, at index sites.