Follow Marine Biologist Carl Safina as he takes viewers around the world to show us how today's ocean issues are being solved in his PBS series "Saving the Ocean." You can watch full episodes online at the PBS website. Here at A/J he's giving us a behind the scenes look at each episode.

In the 1980s, Trinidad’s northeast coast was one of the leatherback turtle’s deadliest nesting beaches. Locals often killed females full of eggs. Many turtles died just to lend one flipper to a cook-pot. (The whole turtle weighs about 800 pounds – it’s the world’s heaviest reptile – so people often took just a little to lug down the beach and vast quantities of meat were wasted, as, of course, was the turtle’s life and breeding future.)

Fast-forward 20 years. Hundreds of people stream in to see the turtles nightly, but only under the watchful guidance of the local group called Nature Seekers, started by the visionary Suzan Lakhan Baptiste, who somehow saw economic potential in letting the turtles live. Needless to say, everyone told her she was crazy. Courageously, she enlisted a few supporters, then many more, and confronted the poachers. Eventually, with so many watchful eyes on the beach, the poaching ended.

Result: far more turtles now than 20 years ago. Now, with hundreds of paying visitors (mostly Trinidadians, but also foreign tourists) nightly pumping money and enthusiasm in to the community, anyone who would suggest stopping the turtle-viewing would be thought of as – crazy.

Here success looks like nests erupting with hatchlings soon after dark. It looks like the black shapes of living dinosaurs crawling in darkness from the eternal sea to dig their nests and lay their eggs – in peace.

Problems remain. On Trinidad’s north coast, fishermen’s nets tangle 3,000 turtles a year. Of those, 1,000 drown. This is in Trinidad alone, mind you.

And for the fishermen, cutting up a net to rid it of turtles – dead or alive – can mean days or even several weeks of down-time as a billowing net several hundred yards long must be repaired by hand. So they’re not happy either.

The huge success in Trinidad is that people no longer kill nesting turtles for meat. That stabilized this turtle population, then helped it grow to its present robust level. But the human population is growing too. That means more fishermen. What might these fishermen do about these nets? Can they find options? And the deeper work: can the human be stabilized anytime soon?

After they mature at about age thirty, Caribbean leatherbacks nest every 2 to 3 years. Males never come ashore. Only females do, and only to lay eggs. Between nesting years, she’ll wander the ocean, eating jellies and bulking on weight.

Those lucky enough to live to maturity can live to be 80 years old. Many don’t make it. Adult mortality is about two percent annually. So if a female has, say, a 20-year reproductive life, laying every other year, she’ll lay about 5,000 eggs. Think about the odds; to oversimplify, keeping the population stable means that just two of those 5,000 or so eggs result in one adult female and one adult male.

Read the next post: Cod Comeback?

 

Safina is founding president of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University, where he also co-chairs the University’s Center for Communicating Science. He has authored 6 books and roughly 200 scientific and popular publications, including features in The New York Times, and National Geographic and a new Foreword to Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. He hosts Saving The Ocean on PBS television.

 

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