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Turtle mystery: How COVID may have contributed to early sea-turtle nesting period in La Union

By Artemio A. Dumlao Published Aug 09, 2021 10:09 pm

Local fisherman Arnel Ebreo was on his way to fish in late July when he noticed familiar looking tracks on the shoreline of Pandan, Bacnotan, La Union.

They were the tracks of a mother olive ridley turtle, which had nested 97 eggs.

According to the SIF-CARE-assisted Coastal Underwater Resource Management Actions (CURMA) coordinator Carlos Tamayo, whose family has been pursuing the sea turtle conservation program in La Union for more than a decade now, “It is unusually early.” 

A nest of sea trutle eggs.

Nesting season for olive ridley turtles here starts in September and ends in March.  “We still do not know yet what caused the abnormality of the season,” Tamayo says and hints it could be another “blessing in disguise” amid the pandemic.

Marine biologists have yet to shed light on why there seems to be a tremendous hike in the nesting especially since the pandemic. 

Tamayo said,  “Most likely the cause is tahimik at madilim ang beaches ngayong COVID-19 times.”

Mother olive ridley turtles lay their eggs on dimly lit and undisturbed shores.

Weather and wave patterns may have contributed to the hike in the number of nests last season, Tamayo said, but the present issue is why this early?

“We are still puzzled,” he said, “though amazed.”

Turtle hatchling. 

CURMA, a Science of Identity Foundation (SIF-CARE)- assisted pawikan conservation and protection program, released over 7,000 hatchlings in March. In 2020, only 38 nests (3,362 hatchlings) were freed into the sea.

In 2017, volunteers freed 8,700 hatchlings. In the 2009-2010 laying season, almost 15,000 hatchlings were released into the sea. The following season, 12,000, then 9,000 and 6,000.

CURMA’s founder, Carlos’ father Toby—a former professor at the Philippine Military Academy, a veteran environmentalist and an accomplished beekeeper at Tobees Apiary in Baguio City—explains, “Sea turtles are a keystone species.”   

Sea turtles, especially green turtles, are one of very few creatures (manatees are another) that eat seagrass.  Seagrass needs to be constantly cut short to help it grow across the sea floor.  Sea turtles’ grazing helps maintain the health of the seagrass beds.

Seagrass beds provide breeding and developmental grounds for numerous marine animals. Without seagrass beds, many marine species that humans harvest would be lost—as would the lower levels in the food chain.  This could result in many more marine species eventually becoming endangered or extinct.

A hatchling heads into the sea.

Sea turtles feed on jellyfish.  If they become extinct, the deadly jellyfishes will multiply exponentially.

Sea turtles come back to where they were freed after 25 years—to lay their own eggs exactly where they were hatched and freed.

There are seven species of sea turtles and all, including the olive ridley, are listed on the IUCN Red List as either critically endangered or vulnerable.

The Bacnotan local government unit and CURMA volunteers have carefully relocated the fresh nest of 97 eggs, soon to be 97 healthy hatchlings after two months, to the hatchery in San Juan.

Volunteers release the hatchlings. 

 Since CURMA partnered with local fisherfolk, who are constantly on the beach as “round-the-clock sea turtle watch,” conservation efforts have gone uphill in La Union, Tamayo admitted.  

“Local government units are our constant partners in this,” he beamed.