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How Can Sea Turtles Teach Us to Collaborate?

InnovationAbt Scientist Bryan Wallace is working across borders to help create regional network to halt the decline of leatherback sea turtles.

For Bryan Wallace, 10 countries are the key to saving endangered sea turtles.

In the last year, Wallace, a scientist at Abt Associates, has worked with 10 East Pacific Ocean countries to create a new way to strengthen their sea turtle conservation: a regional network known as LaúdOPO.
 

Declining Numbers

Leatherback sea turtles have declined in the East Pacific primarily due to accidental capture in fishing gear and illegal egg harvesting, but also because of other ecological stressors, such as fluctuating food availability. Fewer than 1,000 leatherback sea turtles are believed to exist in the East Pacific. Thirty years ago, 1,000 turtles laid their eggs on beaches each year.
 

Taking a Dive with Turtles on Video 

Scientists, including Abt’s Bryan Wallace, are getting a better understanding of sea turtles feeding habits by attaching cameras to their backs – by hand. View a New York Times video about this work.

Watch the video The regional network, known as LaúdOPO, includes more than 30 leaders from ten countries that are home to leather back sea turtles at varying points of time. Laúd is Spanish word for lute, which refers to the shape of the leatherback turtles’ shells. OPO is an acronym referring to the region.

Wallace and his partners are engaging leadership across governments, local agencies, and other organizations from Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, and the U.S. LaúdOPO is funded through Fauna and Flora International and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
 

A Life at Sea

“There has been a real need for this sort of collaboration. Sea turtles may nest in Mexico or Costa Rica and then spend most of their lives at sea, thousands of miles away from their nesting beaches,” Wallace said.

And Wallace isn’t exaggerating that leatherback turtles always are out at sea.

Female turtles may go out to sea and come back to nest as adults 20 years later. After nesting, female turtles may not return to nest again for three to four years. Male sea turtles never come back to land after they first hit the water as hatchlings.
 

Standardizing Data Collection is Important

Their sea-going lifestyle means their numbers are difficult to assess and that researchers, communities, and other stakeholders working to save leatherbacks must collect similar information.

Woman helping a turtle
A biologist injects a nesting turtle with a PIT tag that allows researchers to track this turtle over time.
Photo credit: Carlos Salas, Proyector Laud

“What happens in one region affects what others see in other regions, so our efforts need to be well-coordinated,” Wallace said.

LaúdOPO is critical because it is helping to get people organized to mount a coordinated, regional response to save leatherbacks. For the first time, network partners have agreed to train their teams to collect similar information using the same methods, to share data, and to communicate experiences, good and bad. These activities, in turn, create a strong, active network that can respond effectively to research and conservation priorities in the future.

“I don’t live in Mexico or Peru,” Wallace emphasizes. “This is about strengthening regional efforts through facilitating interactions and collaboration among partners, and leveraging funding and other resources to ensure momentum and sustainability of our work.”

Wallace admits that few organizations, funders, or national governments may get excited about network strengthening, but that is where sea turtles can help.

“Sea turtles are charismatic,” he explained. “People love them and they’re a good flagship for the issues that are facing our oceans. They can put a face to the issue, engage the public, as well as managers, and bring an economic argument to the table. Conservation benefits the turtles and the people who depend on them.”

Read more about Wallace’s work and watch a video in The New York Times:
Taking a Dive with Turtles via Video

Focus Areas
Regions
Latin America & the Caribbean
 
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