Protecting Turtle Territory

They were rare olive ridley sea turtles, fast becoming extinct around the world, just hatched from a nest in the fine San Juan sand in La Union province, their specific nesting site up north.

That started it all, says Marissa's son Carlos, a volunteer of Project CURMA (Coastal Underwater Resource Management Actions), a pawikan (sea turtle) conservation and protection program.

A Science of Identity Foundation (SIF-CARE)-assisted conservation project, the Tamayos began to care for the olive ridleys from then on.

"My sister Sachi began to train in the proper handling of nests until the eggs are hatched and freed to the sea," Carlos says, explaining that eggs the size of pingpong balls must be handled correctly and transferred to a hatchery exactly the same way they are found in the sand.

Carlos explains that the unique "pawikan mentality," as opposed to "crab mentality," sees the stronger hatchlings, after 50-60 days of incubation, pushing their weaker siblings up through the sand.

CURMA's founder is Carlos' father Toby, a former professor at the Philippine Military Academy, a veteran environmentalist and an accomplished beekeeper of the famous Tobees Apiary in Baguio City. The Tamayos have since moved to San Juan, La Union.

Sea turtles, especially green sea turtles, are one of very few creatures (manatees are another) that eat seagrass. Seagrass needs to be constantly cut short to help it grow across the sea floor. Sea turtle grazing helps maintain the health of the seagrass beds, which provide breeding and development grounds for numerous marine creatures. Without seagrass beds, many marine species that humans harvest would be lost, as would the lower levels of the food chain. These reactions could result in many more marine species eventually becoming endangered or extinct.

SIF resident trainor Patrick Andrada adds only sea turtles feed on jellyfish. If they become extinct, the deadly jellyfish will multiply exponentially.

CURMA volunteers freed 8,700 young olive ridley hatchlings from their hatchery at Barangay Ili Norte this season. Hopefully, they would come back to lay their eggs here after 25 years, Andrada says with optimism.

In the 2009-2010 laying season, almost 15,000 hatchlings were freed into the sea. Succeeding seasons have seen 12,000, then 9,000 and 6,000, hatchlings freed.

Sea turtles have a special memory that tells them exactly where they started to walk towards the sea. "So we free them at least 10 meters from the sea and allow them to walk to their freedom," he said.

Laying season starts every October and ends in February.

More than a hundred eggs in a Dec. 17, 2016 nest hatched 58 days later on Feb. 15, and another nest of more than a hundred on Dec. 19 nest hatched last Feb. 21.

"Hatchlings have to be freed an hour after they break out from the egg, otherwise they would not make it," explains Kesh, a UP-Baguio Math graduate who has been volunteering at CURMA.

At the start of the conservation program, local fisherfolk were stumbling blocks, the younger Tamayo explains. "Olive ridleys were food to them, if not money."

Challenged by this predicament, the local community has since been engaged to become active partners in wildlife conservation through various education campaigns. "Then poachers are now with us on the daily 1-3 a.m. beach patrols looking for nests," Tamayo and Andrada share.

CURMA believes that marine conservation starts at the grassroots level. Thus, local fishermen have become Project CURMA's partners. The San Juan local government helps by offering a 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 effort to harmonize the growing tourism industry and looking after the olive ridleys. "We've talked to resort owners to minimize strong white light that scare away mother olive ridleys from laying their eggs," Carlos says.

Beach resort guests are introduced to the sea turtle world and the on-going conservation efforts by having them join in freeing the hatchlings into the sea, Kesh says. Resort guests are barred from staying on the beach between 1-3 a.m. to avoid scaring mother sea turtles seeking their laying site.

The growing tourism industry in the area is perhaps the most challenging aspect in the conservation effort of Project CURMA.

A huge international hotel chain plans to build right where the Dec.17 and 19 nests were found by the dawn patrols. "We were able to negotiate (with the developer) to do structural considerations," the elder Tamayo says. "They can build but not to close to the nesting sites."

Otherwise, the more than a hundred hatchlings freed into the sea on Feb. 19 and 21 won't be able to come back in 25 years and lay their eggs if they see a totally different laying site.

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