BEFORE last Saturday, June 18, visitors to Las Cuevas did not know that sea turtles washed up at night during their nesting season.
They were unaware that along the western part of the beach, hatchlings were emerging from the sands to rush towards the waves. They had no idea that part of the beach presented man-made hazards, being away from the busy swimming area near the constructed facility.
Always on the lookout to help with issues affecting the overall health of the variety of environments in and around Trinidad and Tobago, the non-governmental organization Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) immediately responded to sensitization of the Las Cuevas Eco-friendly Association to organize an urgent cleaning of the beaches. It was turtle nesting season, FFOS was quick to help coordinate and find sponsors for the event.
As she handed out bags and led volunteers in tandem with the Las Cuevas group, FFOS’ Kyrie Roopsingh commented on the need for morning activities.
“When the eco-responsible association Las Cuevas contacted us, our general secretary, Gary Aboud, was at Damien’s Bay, another turtle nesting site. He had collected more than 40 giant garbage bags made up of plastics and other non-biodegradable items.
“Knowing the risks to our ecologically sensitive species in such an exposed habitat, he immediately joined the cleanup initiative. We have engaged HADCO, EMA I Care and the Ministry of Tourism to help us during this crucial nesting period. We have called for volunteers to come to Las Cuevas to exercise their civic responsibility in protecting our marine species and their habitat.
“It’s about individuals using the beach and showing a sense of pride and not leaving footprints that have a negative impact on the environment.”
Las Cuevas is a premier beach and one of the most popular, according to visitor records. It has received Blue Flag certification from the Blue Flag International Jury, a globally recognized environmental award.
Among the criteria listed, the facility is responsible for ensuring nearby habitats such as leatherback turtle nesting sites are protected and sustainably managed.
Unfortunately, as evidenced by the amount of trash collected along the western area of the beach where sea turtles come to nest, lack of maintenance has resulted in the need to voluntarily clean the beach.
Among the tons of trash collected above the high tide line were plastic bags, plastic bottles, glass bottles, Styrotex boxes, plates and cups, slippers and shoes , face masks and even a five dollar bill.
Volunteers such as hiker and conservationist Ashelle Edwards worked among the fringing vegetation where most of the trash was stuck.
“It bothers me a lot to see a lot of trash on the hiking trails and similarly on our beaches. When I was invited to this beach cleanup, I knew it was an important time for nesting. and hatching leatherback turtles, and I was happy to help provide a safe environment for turtles to come in and nest in. and not choke on someone’s plastic or get trapped in it.
“It’s a very beautiful way to give back to nature because it gives us so much in its beauty and all its other resources.”
The Las Cuevas Ecological Association is a community-based non-governmental organization that works tirelessly to protect the integrity of the beach, with a particular focus on the western end where sea turtles nest. According to association president Arlene Williams, the site has been an incubator for four of the five species of sea turtles that visit the north coast annually.
“We monitor, mark and try to protect the turtles every night from March 1 to August 31 each year. We saw leatherback, green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles.
“It’s been a busy season for leatherback turtles on this beach. Just last night a total of 673 hatchlings came out to sea and we had 35 leatherback turtles nesting on the beach. Prior to Covid-19 and the impacts of climate change, we didn’t have many nesting turtles during the month of March when our season usually begins. Before, we only had 10 to 12 turtles.
“However, in March we recorded the arrival of over 40 turtles. Since then we have had thousands of hatchlings coming out every night. This explains how many turtles nested early. We had leatherback turtles that have been nesting here since February.
“Given the amount of trash we collect here today, you can see how the survival of our turtles is threatened by people’s carelessness. When the hatchlings come out, they get stuck in the trash and are made vulnerable to predators such as crabs, crows, hawks, dogs and even humans.
At this point, Williams revealed a storyline that most people aren’t aware of.
“When newborns encounter sandcastles, they are major obstacles on their way to the sea. Everyone loves to build sandcastles and we have no problem with that. However, it’s when the structure is left as is that it becomes an obstruction for turtles.We usually ask people who come to the beach to flatten their castles afterwards, as hatchlings get stuck in them and prolonged exposure to the scorching sun kills them.
The eco-responsible association Las Cuevas has been in existence since 2013 and, before that, carried out voluntary patrols out of love for their natural environment and the sea creatures that depend on it for the procreation of their species.
The organization has applied for funding, but so far it has not been successful. Their track record speaks volumes of their dedicated volunteer work to preserve the status of this internationally recognized marine habitat. Funding is necessary and critical to the success of these efforts.
Although the Forestry Division has assisted them in their patrols in the past, members of the organization have still not been officially appointed honorary game wardens although applications have been submitted.
Yet they selflessly continue to protect our ecologically sensitive species in a vulnerable area.