Everyone loves turtles and turtles love Cyprus! I was lucky enough to catch up with Robin Snape, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Exeter in the UK and coordinator of the Marine Turtle Conservation Project which is a collaborative project between the University of Exeter, SPOT and the North Cyprus Society for Protection of Turtles.
What is SPOT?
SPOT stands for “Society for the Protection of Turtles “and was founded in 1988 by British expats Ian and Celia Bell, as well as Kutlay Keco, a local philanthropist.
What species are found in Cyprus? Does one species need more protection than the other?
Both green turtles and Mediterranean loggerhead turtles are found in Cyprus waters and both nest on its beaches around the island.
- Green turtles are on the red list for endangerment by the IUCN (International Conservation of Nature)
- The number of Green turtles that have made it to adulthood are estimated at around 300-400 turtles in the Mediterranean
- Loggerhead turtles were, until very recently, also on the red list – but conservation efforts have allowed this species to be upgraded to “least concern “status. This means that the population is improving, but stipulates that the population is “conservation dependant”. If conservation efforts halted, then this species would quickly slide back onto the “vulnerable” or endangered” list.
- The number of loggerhead turtles that have made it to adulthood are estimated at 2000-3000 turtles in the Mediterranean.
Breeding adult turtles are the metric used for population estimates, since the best reference we have is the number of nests laid each year, which are counted in nearly all Mediterranean countries. Due to projects such as the one in Alagadi, we know how many nests each female lays and how often, so we can estimate their numbers quite accurately.
Why was SPOT set up?
Celia and Ian were academics from Cambridge University who were touring the Mediterranean counting nest numbers and assessing the general species status of both the Loggerhead and green turtle. They found the habitats of Northern Cyprus to be rather favourable and important to turtles nesting, and so teamed up with Kutley Keco and SPOT was born. Since then they have invited experts from the UK to aid with turtle protection, and the couple have dedicated the last 50 years of their life work into researching and protecting Mediterranean Sea turtles in collaboration with SPOT and the Northern Cyprus Department for Environmental Protection.
Why do turtles need protecting in Cyprus?
- Without conservation efforts established island wide in the last century, the picture would be a bleak one.
- Beaches suitable for nesting have long been destroyed or heavily downgraded before monitoring was established. Turtles only have a certain amount of sandy space in which to lay their eggs.
- Every beach which is sold off for hotel development or impacted by port expansion is another loss of breeding space, and with less breeding space there will be fewer turtles.
- We are lucky in Cyprus to have realised this relatively early on, to have counted nests and assessed the importance of the beaches, and to have put the most important sites under priority protective legislation.
- Dogs and foxes eat turtle eggs – 50% of eggs would be lost. Metal cages are used to protect nests.
- Turtles used to be harvested for meat until very recently. Green turtles were almost wiped out in many areas. It is thought that they used to nest more extensively along the Levant and African coast. In the latter half of the 20th century harvesting stopped except for in North African countries. Since most turtles nesting in Cyprus migrate for foraging in African waters, it is thought that this harvesting, particularly in Egypt, still impacts our nest counts today
- Human populations have grown, demanding more fish. Fisheries react by using more and more nets and more and more hooks to catch them, and accidental catch or bycatch has become the main threat
- Each fisherman in Cyprus sets kilometres of nets and hundreds of baited hooks on the seabed in sea turtle habitats, every day.
- There are an estimated 1000 fishermen in Cyprus. Interviews with local fishermen estimate that 1000 turtles are caught every year by mistake (bycatch) and 60% of them die as a result. Most deaths occur because turtles drown in the nets, unable to return to the surface to breathe. More sustainable fishing practices are being researched – practices that will allow a fisherman to continue fishing, but with a significant reduction of turtle bycatch.
- Plastics are the biggest looming threat. Every year we see more
and more turtles entangled in marine plastics and nearly all green turtles we
necropsy have some plastic debris in their gut.
What have been the major challenges that your team have faced in the past, and what can you see for the future (is the end game a positive one)?
It is difficult to gain support for action against illegal activities such as:
- Development of nesting beaches
- Managing people disturbing nesting beaches.
However, many beaches on the West coast and in Karpaz remain very remote from
people or (in the case of Alagadi) are totally closed at night for conservation. So long as protective planning legislation at the major sites is adhered to, which in the most part has been the case in North Cyprus, then things look good. And increasingly with the development of social media, environmental issues are more accessible and better reported. With our increasing capacity, people are increasingly aware.
What are the major threats to turtles in Cyprus?
- Fisheries bycatch
- Predation by foxes and dogs which were introduced to the island by humans.
- Loss of habitat due to hotel development.
- Plastics and litter
Where are the designated turtle beaches in Cyprus?
All beaches will have some nesting. The most important beaches are:
- Ronnas Bay in north Karpaz,
- Kaleburnu-Dipkarpaz on the south Karpaz coast,
- Tatlisu, Alagadi and Akdeniz
SPOT centres are at:
- Ronnas Bay,
- There is also a project run from Eastern Mediterranean University to monitor and protect nests laid in Famagusta Bay which is another important area, but in recent years expansion of hotels and villas has had a major impact there.
What can tourists do to help?
- Boycott large hotels and restaurants situated on beaches that do not make any efforts to limit their impact on sea turtles. Hotels should use reduced lighting at night and red lights where possible, should not use beach furniture or collect it in/stack it up at night to allow turtles space to nest.
- Report stranded or injured sea turtles to the local conservation sea turtle groups.
- Follow the rules on signs at nesting beaches.
- Visit Alagadi or Ronnas Bay to see nesting females or hatchling releases and to support our work, but don’t use nesting beaches at night June 1- August 1 and certainly do not disturb nesting females or their nests.
- When snorkelling or diving watch them from a distance of at least 5 meters and don’t try to touch them. Turtles need time to rest and feed to build up enough energy reserves to reproduce.
Do scuba divers help with conservation?
All scuba divers are conservationists at heart, but more could be done collaboratively among scuba and conservation groups to promote marine issues, undertake research etc.
How can people donate or volunteer for SPOT? When can they volunteer? Is
it all year round?
We do have year-round activities. We are currently putting volunteers on fishing vessels to monitor bycatch and undertaking sea surveys. 100 volunteers participate annually in our summer work programme on the nesting beaches with 70 paying volunteers from overseas and 30 locally. We welcome locals and we financially support them with food and accommodation. So, volunteering is free if you are a citizen. The deadline for international volunteers has passed but we are very low on male volunteers, so we would still encourage male volunteers to apply via our online system. Cypriots can apply until April 1. · We would particularly welcome records of turtles, dolphins and monk seals with an estimation of size, species, ideally photos and GPS coordinates.
What should we do if we find an injured/dead turtle in the sea or on
Call SPOT on 05488868684.
How many turtles make it from nest to sea after hatching – how much higher
are the odds when SPOT is involved?
This is variable and difficult to estimate. In some beaches on Karpaz, even
where nests were caged, foxes were rounding up hatchlings at night, killing them and burying them to eat later. Had the nests not been caged then many would not have made it out of the nest. At Alagadi, which is patrolled at night and during the day throughout the season, dog and fox predation is zero. Other than at Alagdi we don’t have much control over the number of hatchlings emerging from the nest that make it to the sea, but in most cases, the majority make it. It’s during incubation that the developing hatchlings are vulnerable to being dug up and eaten.
I would like to thank Robin for taking the time to answer my questions in such depth. I must admit, my impressions of turtle threats in Cyprus were already huge, but the figures of turtles caught in bycatch are alarming by anyone’s standards. I look forward to volunteering personally and organizing various trips of divers from my dive center Scuba Monkey. Why don’t you sign up for the next round of volunteering? I can’t imagine a greater gift of a personal donation if you can’t spare the time.
Who doesn’t love a turtle?
I adore them!
Let’s Protect them!
For more images check out the SPOT Gallery
Report a dead or injured turtle