A safe haven for the loggerheads

If you are in Masirah Island now, be cautious — Loggerheads are nesting. These gentle creatures of the ocean have found home in this part of Oman and considerable efforts had to be made as the species of NorthWest Indian Ocean sub-population have been re-evaluated by IUCN and their status has now been changed from Endangered to Critically Endangered.
Named for their large heads that support powerful jaw muscles, loggerheads mostly feed on hard-shelled prey like clams and sea urchins. Also commonly found in the Mediterranean, tourism development however have pushed them away threatening not only their survival but their future.
Oman Daily Observer caught up with Suaad al Harthi, Executive Director of the Environment Society of Oman to find out more about the Loggerheads and their migration here in the country.

How active are the loggerhead turtles in Masirah?
The loggerhead turtles are quite active in Masirah during this time of the year. A female loggerhead nests several times during the nesting season, ranging from 2 to 7 times, with an average of 5.4 times within the same nesting season.

Are some of these turtles tagged?
About 73 turtles had been tagged since the initiation of the study in 2008, a partnership which included several stakeholders such as the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs in Oman, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Five Oceans Environmental Services and the Environment Society of Oman. Most of these tagged loggerhead turtles have been adult female turtles, fitted with tags after they have completed their nesting. Most of these tagged turtles were seen to remain around the coast of Oman and the island of Masirah, continuing to forage in the rich waters to the south and north of the island. Some have made their way south to the Gulf of Aden in Yemen.
On the other hand, on the island of Reunion in the southern Indian Ocean, they have tagged juvenile loggerhead turtles that were caught in long-line fisheries, rehabilitated and then released and they found that 50% of the turtles made their way north directly towards Masirah Island.

What is their current status in terms of conservation and are they endangered?
The loggerhead sea turtles for this region (North West Indian Ocean sub-population), were re-evaluated by the IUCN Species Survival Commission in 2015 and their status was changed from Endangered to Critically Endangered. This status is normally given to a population which suffers a severe decline over three generations.

It is said that turtles come back to the same shore where they were born to lay eggs. Is that scientifically proven?
Yes, it is a fact that sea turtles come back to the same shore they are born from to lay their eggs. This is what is fascinating about this species, and how the turtle orients itself to come back to the same location after many years at sea remains a mystery to most scientists. It is hard to say how many kilometres they would have travelled in total as they all follow various paths, but their route is notoriously long and filled with various natural and human based challenges.

If people are planning to watch turtles what should they bear in mind?
There are several important guidelines to consider when visiting a sea turtle nesting beach, and ESO has been proactive in engaging with the community on the island and has even set up over 50 awareness signs on the island of Masirah. These guidelines include:
Keeping noise levels down
No beach driving
No artificial lighting or bonfires
No touching or disturbing the turtles or removing their eggs
No hunting
No camping
No discarding of litter and disposing of nets on beaches

We advise, generally, to refrain from approaching turtles on the beach at night unless with an experienced guide. They are sensitive to being disturbed during nesting, and although this encounter might be exciting [to humans] it may result in the female turtle being unable to deposit the eggs. If we add up the number of visitors to a beach over a summer period, this can have a large impact on the number of successful nests laid each year. It is possible for our inquisitive nature to be a part of population decline.

Masirah does not have the same facility as Ras al Hadd but what is its potential?
The nesting beaches of Masirah are an important asset to the country and should be protected as such. The loggerhead turtles in Masirah account for 35% of the global abundance and are of high global importance. Therefore, they provide a very high value to the tourism sector as the demand for eco-friendly tourism grows. It’s important to keep in mind that as the tourism sector develops, it is done in a manner that is sustainable and does not undermine or compromise the nesting beaches which is the asset for people to visit.

Can you give us an insight on the ESO’s work for loggerheads in Masirah?
ESO has been studying loggerhead sea turtles on Masirah Island for over 10 years and has a good understanding of the nesting population, which is showing a declining trend. In order to counter-act this it’s important for us to also identify the various threats to the population and do what we can to minimize this.
Sea turtles occupy various habitats during their different life phases (from nesting beaches, to coastal waters for forging and breeding, to open seas), each of these various areas there are both natural and human induced threats which influence them.
On land – they face threats from lighting pollution, beach driving, egg poaching and inappropriate discard of nets and waste materials. At sea – they face threats from habitat loss, pollution as well as accidental entanglements in fishing nets. ESO has been working with the fishing communities on the island to further understand the impact from fisheries and is working on educating fishermen to minimize net entanglements and train them on methods of save release of turtles in case they get caught. ESO also employs three full time field assistants on Masirah to monitor the population throughout the nesting season.