By Alfonso Rodriguez
San Juan, Apr 21 (efe-epa).- The leatherback turtle, the world’s largest sea turtle, each year between March and August arrives on Puerto Rico’s beaches, where the females lay their eggs, but this year the island is locked down due to the coronavirus pandemic and this could harm the species, which is already in danger of extinction.
Covid-19, which more than a month ago spurred local authorities to implement a curfew and a strict quarantine, will not provide an advantage for the turtles to lay their eggs, as some had thought given the virtual absence of people on Puerto Rico’s beaches, the coordinator of the Marine Turtles Program with the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA), Carlos Diez, told EFE.
He said that the curfew in place since mid-March to try and limit the spread of the coronavirus has led to a significant drop in the number of DRNA monitors patrolling the beaches, whose work is essential in helping the female turtles who arrive along the coast.
The females that are arriving these days along Puerto Rico’s beaches are returning by instinct years later to the very same places where they were born.
The turtles can lay eggs several times during the same season and, in general, once they build a nest and fill it with eggs, it takes up to 60 days for the babies to hatch depending on the air temperature.
The nests are dug into the sand and can be up to a meter (3.3 feet) deep and contain up to 100 eggs.
The DRNA recommends keeping the beaches unlighted, since artificial light disorients the turtles, and also tells the public to respect the areas marked as nesting zones, not to make bonfires, not to cut the local vegetation or destroy the sand dunes, not to throw trash on the beach or to use motor vehicles there.
Diez said that Gov. Wanda Vazquez’s executive orders instructing people to remain in their homes for the time being include another requirement limiting the presence of the beach monitors with the aim of limiting contact among government officials, and the beaches are now largely in the hands of hunters, unscrupulous people or, members of the public who, with their simple presence, are not helping the turtles make their nests and lay their eggs.
Vazquez said that the DRNA monitors play a crucial role in the turtles’ nesting and egg-laying by directing females confused by light pollution along the coasts to darker areas where they can safely come ashore and even relocating nests if they are constructed too close to the sea where they could be washed away by the waves.
“The impact (of Covid-19) will be … negative because it limits the DRNA personnel who can be on the beaches ‘monitoring,'” said Diez, adding that so far this season a total of 200 leatherback turtle nests have been counted along the island’s coasts.
So far, more than 60 people have died from Covid-19 and over 1,000 have been infected in Puerto Rico, and social distancing measures make it impossible for the DRNA monitors – and the student groups they guide to familiarize them with the turtles’ reproductive processes – to roam the beaches at night, as they normally do during egg-laying season.
The groups of “turtlers” participating with the DRNA in monitoring the turtles include Yo Amo al Tinglar, Chelonia, Tortugueros de Culebra, 7 Quillas, Playas pal Pueblo, Arrecifes Prociudad and Coalición del Corredor del Noreste, along with ATMAR, Vida Marina, Tortugueros del Sur and the Culebra Sea Turtle Project.
Diez said that the leatherback turtle is a species in danger of extinction that is thus protected by US federal law, Puerto Rican law and also by international treaties.
During the March-August season, up to 1,000 nests have been detected in the past, mainly along Puerto Rico’s northern and eastern coasts.
The leatherback turtle can reach 1.8-2.4 meters (6-8 feet) in length and weigh more than 590 kilograms (1,300 pounds).
The turtles mainly eat jellyfish and, because their prey is transparent, they often confuse floating plastic bags for their next meal and devour them, a situation that often kills the turtles.