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Marine Protected Areas Prove To Be Vital Aspect Of Green Turtle Sustainability

March 21, 2012

Ryan Parson for RedOrbit.com

Some sea turtles appear to be reaping the benefits of government designated areas of bodies of water, known as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

A recent study published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography suggests that the MPAs are playing a key role in the support and nourishment of the Green turtle.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, all six species of sea turtles that inhabit US waters are currently listed under the Endangered Species Act.  Many dangers pose a threat to the survival of the sea turtle population.  For years, sea turtles have been poached for their meat and extravagant shells.  They also have fallen victim as by catch to commercial fishing boats such as long-liners and shrimp trawlers.  Even with the required Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs) in place, as required by the federal government, many sea turtles are still killed each year by these fishing methods.  They also become entangled and ultimately drown in nets and other fishing gear.

MPAs are designated areas of water that are protected and regulated by governments and other enforcing agencies.  These areas have been used for many of years to aid in resource management.  The first MPA was set in 1975 off the coast of North Carolina to protect a Civil War ship that sank in 1862.  Most MPAs are placed for scientific reasons to help manage and maintain the ecosystem and other marine resources.

According to the National Marine Protected Areas Center website, the United States is executing a science-based national system of MPAs including the over 1600 MPAs nationwide that currently exist and make up about 40% of all US waters.  The system will include areas across all levels of government to ensure the protection of vital habitats and resources.   The areas vary in level of protection and also in the degree of restrictions placed on them.  Less than 8% of all MPAs in the United States are considered “no-take” areas, meaning fishing or harvesting of any kind is not tolerated.  These sanctuaries are utilized to protect spawning and nursery grounds for a variety of marine organisms.  These “no-take” and other MPAs also serve to be used as research and monitoring zones for many scientific studies and data collection.

It is thought that many of the MPAs serve as feeding, breeding, and nesting habitats for a variety of species of sea turtles.  One recent study has proven that this, in fact, is the case for the green turtle.

The green turtle is found globally in tropical to subtropical waters. They are an herbivorous species, eating primarily seaweed and algae.  In 2004, the Marine Turtle Specialist Group (MTSG) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified the green turtle as globally endangered, stating that enormous population declines of the species have occurred worldwide over the past 150 years.  This is thought to be primarily caused by the long-term harvesting of eggs, juveniles, and adult turtles.

This study, conducted by a team of researchers and scientists led by the University of Exeter, indicates that an extensive 35% of the world´s green turtle population was found feeding in these designated Marine Protected Areas.

The team equipped 145 green turtles from 28 nesting locations with state-of-the-art satellite tracking devices.  The team, which was constructed from scientists from many different areas of the world, tracked the turtles and determined that they can travel up to thousands of miles to reach the grounds in which they feed.  This data also provided sufficient evidence that about 21% of these turtles were found in those designated MPAs that are the oldest and under the most extensive regulations and protection.

Brendan Godley, professor at the University of Exeter´s Centre for Ecology and Conservation stated in a recent press release: “Our global overview revealed that sea turtles appear in the Marine Protected Areas far more than would be expected by chance.  There has been debate over the values of MPAs, but this research provides compelling evidence that they may be effective in providing safe foraging habitats for large marine creatures, such as green turtles.”

Godley also noted that the satellite tracking projects that were being used in this data collection set played an invaluable and much larger part in being able to evaluate the effectiveness and values of the MPAs than previously capable.

This study raises enormous speculation to whether or not a larger quantity of the MPAs should be designated as “no-take” areas.  More of these highly restricted areas in the tropic and sub-tropic waters would create an even more extensive area for the green turtle and other species to forage and thrive in the protected waters, ultimately allowing the population of these endangered species to make a great come back.

Richard Benyon, the Minister of British Fisheries noted, “This study unlocks some of the secrets surrounding the life cycle of marine turtles, whose movements have long been a mystery.  The results will mean we will better manage the oceans and protect turtle habitats, which are key to helping them survive.”

This evidence gives great validity to the positive effects that these designated areas have on the world´s natural resources and the ecosystem in which they inhabit.  Not only do these areas provide great habitat for sea turtles and other animals, but according to Tundi Agardy of the World Wildlife Fund, another major role MPAs play is helping provide a “starting point for exploring and delimiting functional linkages in coastal systems.” This helps to provide an effective base knowledge when working to determine guidelines and regulations on fisheries and other resources.

Not only is the United States using the MPA program but other countries such as Canada, Australia, and Southeast Asia are employing MPAs as an early protection system to ensure the future sustainability of their natural resources.  Parts of Africa have just recently been deemed as MPAs to help protect mangroves, coral reefs, estuaries, and many other fish species and habitats.   European agencies have also recently announced plans for protected areas to help save their sea fish and coral populations.

To learn more about MPA sites and the importance of such projects visit the National Marine Protected Areas Center at http://www.mpa.gov.

Reference: M. Tundi Agardy. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Volume 9, number 7. 1994. Advances in Marine Conservation: The Role of Marine Protected Areas.

Image Credit: Manuel Heinrich Emha/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.5)


Source: Ryan Parson for RedOrbit.com