Turtle nesting in La Union peaks during pandemic

BAGUIO CITY — Nesting of the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles in La Union has reached an all-time high.

Conservation group Coastal Underwater Resource Management Actions (CURMA) coordinator Carlos Tamayo is even anticipating the most number of hatchlings in the (October-March) season.

“It might even double with already 4,606 already hatched and released to the sea with less than half of the 65 nests to hatch in the coming days,” Tamayo said.

CURMA is a pawikan conservation and protection program assisted by the Science of Identity Foundation (SIF-CARE). It was started by Tamayo’s family several years ago at barangay Ili Norte, San Juan.

Tamayo is also excited that the 65 nests at the hatchery is still growing because Olive Ridley turtle mothers keep on returning to the shores of San Juan all the way to Bacnotan to lay their eggs.

“We see 6,500 to over 7,000 hatchlings (at the end of the season this March),” Tamayo said.

In comparison, only 38 nests (3,362 hatchlings) were successfully released to the sea in the previous season.

CURMA’s founder, Toby Tamayo, a former professor at the Philippine Military Academy, a veteran environmentalist and an accomplished beekeeper of the famous Tobees Apiary in Baguio City explains that sea turtles are a “keystone species”— a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, such that if it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically.

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

Sea grass beds provide breeding and developmental grounds for numerous marine animals.  Without sea grass beds, many marine species humans harvest would be lost, as would the lower levels of the food chain.  The reactions could result in many more marine species eventually becoming endangered or extinct.

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

Sea turtles are known to come back to where they were freed 25 years after to lay their own eggs.

There are 7 species of sea turtles and all, including the Olive Ridley, are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List as either critically endangered or
vulnerable.

According to Tamayo, they are consulting with marine biologists to shed light on why there seems to be a tremendous hike in the nesting, though he suspects the reason is “most likely (because) tahimik at madilim ang beaches ngayong Covid-19 times”.

Mother Olive Ridley turtles lay their eggs on dimly lit and undisturbed shores.

Marine biologists are also checking weather and wave patterns that may have contributed to the hike in the number of nests this season according to Tamayo.

At the start of the conservation program, local fisherfolk opposed the idea, the younger Tamayo revealed. “Olive Ridleys were food to them. If not money.”

But the group engaged the local fishing community to become active partners in wildlife conservation through various education campaigns, and eventually what used to be poachers have now become CURMA volunteers doing beach patrols for nests.

The group also lobbied for support from the San Juan local government which now provides P1,500 per-catch-incentive to fishermen who find Olive Ridley adults at sea or along the beach.

Even beach resort owners have joined the program to harmonize tourism in the area and look after the welfare of Olive Ridley turtles. ●