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Ulithi Sea Turtle Project
Micronesia Outer Islands: Ulithi Sea Turtle Project
Ulithi Atoll is a cluster of low islets just north of the equator in the western portion of the Pacific. As one of the outer island groups within the state of Yap, Ulithi is part of the Federated States of Micronesia. Yap State stretches from 6 to 10 degrees North Latitude and 137 to 148 degrees East Longitude.
Ulithi Atoll's 200 miles of pristine coral reefs and its cluster of 41 low islets provide important nesting habitats for seabirds, sea turtles, coconut crabs, and endemic species. In addition, the beautiful untouched Turtle Islands are also a refuge for nesting red-footed boobies and greater frigates. The palm fringed islands are ringed with white sand beaches, surrounded by coral-rich aquamarine waters. Coral reef biodiversity is high with abundant tropical fish and rare corals and sponges.
Four species of turtles have been found in Yap state. Sightings of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) have been reported in pelagic waters and olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) outside the reef of Yap Proper. Green turtles (Chelonia mydas) are the most common species nesting in the islands, and local inhabitants believed that hawksbills (Eretmochelys imbricata) forage on the Yap Proper reef. Ulithi Atoll is home to several "Turtle Islands", of which five are identified as significant green turtle nesting sites by the local people. These uninhabited islands include a cluster of three islands: Loosiep, Bulbul, and Yeew, and a cluster of two islands: Gielop and Iar, believed to be the largest green turtle rookery in Micronesia.
Yap State has been identified as a major nesting and foraging area for green turtles. Since people have occupied islands in this region, turtles have been harvested for subsistence purposes as part of traditional practices. However, locally people report that turtles are no longer seen nesting or foraging where they were once abundant. Increased take of eggs, juveniles and adult turtles is a significant problem leading to the decline of turtle stocks in Yap State. Nesting turtles found in Yap face additional threats from marine debris, commercial fisheries, and water pollution as the move to their feeding grounds in Southeast Asian waters placing further pressures on the nesting population.
In the past, cultural harvesting limitations have protected nesting sea turtle populations in Ulithi. While there is considerable community desire to retain these customs and restrictions, there is also pressure and incentive from foreign commercial and regional sources to allow coral harvesting and sea turtle taking.
In 2007, Oceanic Society initiated an integrated program to help foster conservation, strengthen cultural traditions, and promote alternative sustainable livelihoods.
The Society’s conservation approach is to foster alternative livelihoods for the benefit of local communities bordering marine protected areas through the development of eco-friendly economies as an alternative to those that are destructive to wildlife and natural habitats. Our wildlife conservation projects enjoy community support because we work locally from the beginning.
The resources in Ulithi belong to specific communities and are managed by their Chiefs. A marine reserve and turtle sanctuary is currently under consideration. However, the communities are in need of basic infrastructure support and Oceanic Society believes a tangible long-term benefit to the community should be realized in exchange for any proposed reserves or sanctuaries.
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The Ulithi Sea Turtle Conservation Project, sponsored by Oceanic Society and chiefly funded by the Joint Institute of Marine and Atmospheric Research, has established long-term research and monitoring goals for Ulithi Atoll in consultation with key partners.
Sea turtle monitoring in Yap was initiated in 1989 by the Yap State Marine Resources Management Division. Since 2005, project director Jennifer Cruce and specially trained Falalop community members have collected life history information on Ulithi sea turtles. In collaboration with Steven P. Kolinski, Ph.D., who researched Yap sea turtles in the 1990’s, and George Balazs with the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, a satellite tracking effort was also initiated.
Since 2005, a total of 22 men from Falalop, Ulithi have been trained in basic sea turtle biology and nesting beach monitoring field techniques. Hundreds of turtles have been tagged and nest ecology data collected to determine turtle distribution, peak nesting season, and relative reproductive success.
|Satellite tracking efforts from 2005 and 2006 supports previous regional flipper tag recoveries in suggesting connectivity between Yap State nesting and feeding areas in the Philippines and Malaysia based on turtle migrations. The 2007 data are still being analyzed and a manuscript covering all three years is in preparation.|
Data collected in 1991 and 2005 through 2007 revealed the importance of these islands for nesting turtles and the lack of information regarding this nesting population. The research and results to date could not have been possible without the cooperation and collaboration of many agencies and organizations including the Ulithi community, Yap State Resources and Development Department, Yap Community Action Program, Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, Yap State Marine Resources Management Division, National Marine Fisheries Service, Pacific Islands Regional Office, Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme, Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, Marine Turtle Research Program, Yap Institute of Natural Science, Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter in Cornwall.
A continuous, long-term monitoring effort is needed to better understand population size and trends at Ulithi in order to address conservation management issues.
Jennifer Cruce, Oceanic Society’s sea turtle biologist in Micronesia, is conducting her doctoral thesis on Ulithi community-based sea turtle conservation. Her goal is to provide Ulithi community members the capacity to also utilize science when addressing sea turtle conservation.
The outer islands high school on Falalop Island in Ulithi is a converted U.S. Navy Loran Station which was in operation in the 1960’s. In 1944 the Naval military government converted Ulithi into a huge advance base for the invasion of Okinawa and the Philippines. The local residents were moved off their island of Falalop until 1947, at which time Micronesia was declared a United Nation’s Trust Territory until the independence of the Federated States of Micronesia in 1986. After the war, Ulithi atoll has been under the socioeconomic influence of the United States.
OS has launched a campaign to help build a marine science center for high school students, provide school supplies and scholarships.
In 2007, in cooperation with the nonprofit organization Habele, Oceanic Society provided a Sea Turtle scholarship for a student from Ulithi to attend classes at the all-girls Bethania High School in the Republic of Palau. The scholarship was granted in support of local sea turtle conservation efforts. Like Habele, the Oceanic Society recognizes the unique difficulties faced by students in the Outer Islands. Mario Sukulbech, a Habele volunteer who lives on the Island of Falalop states “These girls are the future of our islands. Sadly, some people here are still skeptical about the value of education and the role of women in our changing traditions. These particular girls are working hard to prove them wrong, to build a brighter future for their families, and our island community.”
Oceanic Society was awarded a SWOT grant in 2007 to create a link between the local sea turtle conservation effor and awareness by educating teachers about sea turtle biology and conservation. In 2008, Oceanic Society would like to continue to promote sea turtle conservation primarily among the youth in Ulithi Atoll by incorporating sea turtle conservation learning activities into youth-organized events and school curriculum.
Thank you for considering becoming a Friend of Ulithi Atoll