by Gerard Best
Dr. Julia Horrocks loves a good book. Or a quiet stroll through nature. When she’s not overseeing genetic analyses of Eastern Caribbean hawksbill turtles, that is. Or monitoring their migratory patterns through satellite-tracking transmitters fibreglassed onto their carapaces.
“Truth be told, I don’t do a lot outside of work and, you know, children’s activities,” Horrocks told me, explaining that between her nine-year-old twins, Imogen and Sebastian, her full-time job as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biological and Chemical Sciences at The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus, Barbados, and her responsibilities as Director of the Barbados Sea Turtle Project (an eco-marine conservation project hosted by that Department), she rarely finds time for anything else. The indefatigable Horrocks recently sat down to discuss her pet project.
“We [the BSTP] are about trying to make the best use of the natural resources in Barbados, in a sustainable fashion. With regard to the sea turtles, that means ensuring that the numbers are maintained at an abundance which allows them to fulfill their function in the marine eco-system.”
Though its mission is straightforward, the BSTP must contend with difficult questions. For example, must the island always enforce a zero tolerance policy towards turtle capture? If not, what amount of harvesting is acceptable?
“Okay, personally, I am not opposed to the capture of appropriate size classes of sea turtles, in appropriate numbers,” said Horrocks. She immediately acknowledged, however, that the issue of what exactly was “appropriate” in this regard remains a matter of some dispute.
“That depends on how far back in time you want to go in terms of restoring population numbers. If you go back to before the Europeans came to the Caribbean, the sizes of sea turtle populations were immense in the Caribbean sea. Should that be our goal or should we simply be trying to get back to where we were one hundred years ago when things were not quite as bad as they are now, yet numbers were already depleted?”
More difficult questions. Horrocks, who is currently on sabbatical, taking up a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship award which she received in 2004, is attempting to come up with at least some of the answers.
“I recognize that there has to be some kind of direct value obtained from sea turtles in order for governments to take conservation seriously, but we have to find ways of using sea turtles that are sustainable. So, one of the issues I want to address over the course of this Pew Fellowship is the promotion of forms of sea turtle eco-tourism that are not damaging to sea turtle populations.”
The BSTP had its origins in 1987, during Horrocks’ postdoctoral fellowship at Bellairs Research Institute (the tropical marine research lab of McGill University) in Barbados, where the British-born biologist first became interested in sea turtles.
“Because it was a marine lab, people would frequently come in with questions regarding turtles. People would come in with disorientated hatchlings, or reports of having seen turtles killed on the beach.”
When people phoned in, Horrocks and a small group of interested students would go to the beach and follow things up in an informal way. Soon, the operation became more structured. They decided to get a dedicated cell phone. It was the birth of the Sea Turtle hotline.
“When I moved to UWI full-time in 1988, the hotline came along with me. In the early years, it was just myself and a few other interested persons. But as I developed my research programme in sea turtle biology and conservation here at the UWI in Cave Hill, my graduate students inevitably became heavily involved. Although they were all doing research in different areas, everybody shared in the responsibilities of conservation and public education.”
Through the history of the Project, UWI students have continued to play an indispensable role in its diverse activities. (Not surprisingly, in 2003, Horrocks received an Environmental Citizenship Award from the Barbados Environmental Youth Programme.) Today, the Project remains directly tied to The University of the West Indies.
“It’s not a stand alone project, and that’s really a very deliberate stance. I just feel that the University is the place to base a project of this kind, rather than becoming an NGO or a separate entity. I think the University gives the project academic recognition.”
The Project currently provides advice and concrete services (like—you guessed it—in satellite-tracking and genetic analysis) to the Eastern Caribbean. One of Horrocks’ graduate students, Darren Browne, is now working on the genetic structure of feeding aggregations of hawksbills. He has been assisting Antigua, Grenada and St. Kitts in identifying the genetic structure of their populations. The samples, Horrocks explained, are collected in-island, then sent to UWI Cave Hill for analysis.
“In order to develop proper conservation and management policies, you need to know, for instance, how many different countries are fishing from the same stock and what other factors may be impacting on the population,” said Horrocks, underscoring the importance of ongoing university research to future regional policy development.
The BSTP is also closely affiliated with the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), an international scientific network of country coordinators and partner organisations across more than thirty Caribbean states and territories. Herself the WIDECAST country coordinator for Barbados, Dr. Horrocks explained that coordinators worked closely with a national coalition of stakeholders, including biologists, conservationists, resource managers, resource users, policy-makers, educators and others, to ensure that everyone has access to the dialogue, as well as to the unique products and services of the network.
“It’s not about just writing a report and sticking it on a shelf. It’s about implementing the actions that you identify,” Horrocks pointed out, citing the example of Nature Seekers, a WIDECAST member group headquartered in Matura, Trinidad, where the world’s second largest leatherback turtle rookery is located. Horrocks identified the outdoorsy community-based conservation and awareness group as “perhaps one of the most successful eco-tourism groups in the entire Caribbean.”
Back in Barbados itself, Horrocks has been working on satellite-tracking post-nesting females, using special GPS transmitters affixed to the turtles’ backs which allow animals to be located to within one hundred metres of their precise whereabouts once they break surface. Horrocks, who has represented the in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Protocol concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW), is personally convinced that a comprehensive and effective sea turtle conservation policy requires a more collaborative and integrated effort involving Central America and the Caribbean.
“We’ve had records of turtles leaving Barbados that go to Trinidad, to Grenada, to Venezuela, Guadeloupe, Dominican Republic, […] as far as Nicaragua, showing how these animals move and how, therefore, conservation cannot be done simply at the country where they’re nesting but at other countries along their migration routes and at their destinations where they’re foraging.”
In 2001, the WIDECAST Marine Turtle Tagging Centre (MTTC) was established, under Horrocks’ directorship, at The UWI Cave Hill, hosted by BSTP. In the same year, Horrocks received Barbados’ prestigious Governor-General’s Environmental Award. (No connection, she insisted.)
Currently, the MTTC not only provides training and equipment for small-scale sea turtle tagging and monitoring programmes in the Caribbean, but maintains a regional database documenting the fate of the metal tags that are attached to the flippers of sea turtles to identify them as individuals. The programme has been quite successful to date. Uniquely numbered on one side, with a return address on the other side to which the tag is sent upon capture of the turtle, tags provide invaluable information on sea turtle movements and fate.
“In the past, a number of projects have been started in the Eastern Caribbean but data have been lost when the group ran out of resources to continue their work. So the idea of this centralised tagging database is that all that information will be maintained and archived at a central location, within a tertiary level institution that’s not going to be going anywhere, any time soon.”
The WIDECAST Marine Turtle Tagging Centre
The WIDECAST Marine Turtle Tagging Centre is just one of several centres pioneered and/or hosted by The University of the West Indies and dedicated to the study of natural resources and the environment. Others include The Centre for Caribbean Land and Environmental Appraisal Research (CLEAR) at St. Augustine, Trinidad; The Centre for Environment and Development (UWICED) at Mona, Jamaica; and The Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES) at Cave Hill, Barbados.
CLEAR is focused on multidisciplinary research and development in geo-based sciences; UWICED provides a regional focal point for facilitating training in sustainable environmental development; CERMES offers applied consultancy services to regional governments, NGOs and the private sector. While every Centre differs in its focus, each provides support for ongoing research at the post graduate level.
The UWI also offers a wide range of Bachelor of Science (BSc.) degrees, with majors and minors in Biochemistry, Biology, Biotechnology Earth Sciences, Botany, Ecology, Environmental Biology, Environmental Sciences, Environmental & Natural Resource Management, Experimental Biology, Microbiology, Molecular Biology and Zoology.
Photography courtesy: Stephen Frink, Jeffrey L. Rotman, - wwww.ideastock.us/corbis