Sea Turtle Conservation Efforts Make History in Coastal Ecuador
April 12, 2021; By Molly Shane, Marine Program Officer
Ecuador boasts immense geographic diversity, including nearly 1,400 miles of coastline that stretches from Colombia in the north to Peru in the south. Ecuador’s coast is defined by estuaries, mangroves, mountain systems, beaches, bluffs, islands, shallows, rocky and sandy seabeds, and even semi-arid areas. Thanks in part to the range of coastal ecosystems and the convergence of ocean currents that create highly productive zones, the coast possesses tremendous biodiversity. Migratory marine species, including humpback whales, sea turtles, albatrosses, manta rays, sharks, and more, congregate and reproduce throughout Ecuador’s coastal region.
In addition to supporting immense biological diversity, coastal Ecuador is also home to approximately 58 percent of the country’s population. The coastal region encompasses everything from large cities and international ports to small fishing villages. Industries that play a significant role in the country’s overall economic stability, including fishing, aquaculture, and tourism, are highly dependent on marine and coastal resources. The ocean and its resources not only support life and livelihoods in and beyond the coastal zone but also hold considerable cultural importance and value.
In recognition of the importance of Ecuador’s marine resources, there are currently nineteen coastal marine protected areas (MPAs), each with a different category of management. One of the top conservation priorities throughout the MPA network is the protection of the five sea turtle species found in Ecuador: Green, Leatherback, Hawksbill, Loggerhead, and Olive-Ridley. According to the IUCN Red List, these species range from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘critically endangered.’ Sea turtles are threatened by a multitude of impacts, including incidental capture in fishing nets, injury by boats, nest disturbance by human activity, plastic pollution, climate change, and more.
In December 2019, the Ministry of the Environment and Water launched a sea turtle conservation project in partnership with WildAid Marine, with technical assistance and funding from GIZ. The goal of the project was to protect and conserve sea turtles and their habitats by strengthening sea turtle nest monitoring and protection, increasing education and outreach in coastal MPAs, contributing to the scientific understanding of sea turtles in Ecuador, and developing public policies to support the long–term protection of these species.
A key element of the project was to identify, monitor, and protect sea turtle nests throughout the coastal region. Teams of park rangers and community volunteers undertook extensive efforts to ensure nests were visibly marked, cordoned off, and protected from common threats, including dogs, human activity on beaches, harvesting, and more. In order to ensure the safety of these individuals in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, WildAid Marine helped develop protocols to minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19 and supported rangers with essential supplies and protective materials. When sea turtles began arriving to nest on Ecuador’s beaches in May 2020, rangers and volunteers jumped into action. Over the next nine months, participants conducted more than 2,500 beach patrols to monitor more than 1,300 nests, nearly double the number monitored in the previous nesting season. In total, more than 20,000 sea turtle hatchlings were born safely.
As a testament to the impact of the project, 69 leatherback sea turtle hatchlings were born and safely released to the sea in January 2021, marking the first leatherback hatching event in Ecuador in nearly 40 years. Leatherback sea turtles are known to have particularly low reproductive success with only 50 percent of eggs hatching successfully (Rafferty et al. 2017). Of the 69 hatchlings, twelve were hatched in an incubator, marking an additional achievement for the project. As threats to sea turtles intensify, successful controlled incubation may become more critical.
As of April 2021, a total of fifteen leatherback nests had been identified, with WildAid Marine providing direct monitoring and protection to eight of those. Additional monitoring support was provided by Fundación Contamos Contigo Ecuador and Fundación Equilibrio Azul.
The accomplishments of the project demonstrate the power of effective marine enforcement and highlight the critical role of cross-sectoral partnerships in generating meaningful conservation outcomes. WildAid Marine is proud to offer continued support for sea turtle conservation efforts in coastal Ecuador, recently supporting the release of two educational videos published as part of the new “Our Beaches Are Their Sanctuary” campaign.