Shell Beach is different from conventional beaches in that it is not known for white sandy beaches or blue waters. Located at Barima Waini, Region 1, the beach stretches for over 120 kilometres, or 75 miles, of mudflats, and is home to four of the seven remaining types of sea turtles: Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), Green Turtle (Chelonia Mydas). The area serves as an important nesting ground for marine turtles, and is home to the largest contiguous area of productive mangrove forests.
Many Guyanese residing on the coast have only heard tales of the Leatherback Turtle, the world’s largest sea turtle, but have never seen one. As we celebrate World Turtle Day 2019, it is an important time to pause and celebrate our turtle and tortoise species, and raise awareness on the importance of habitats such as Shell Beach.
Shell Beach as a Protected Area
Shell Beach was designated as a Protected Area in 2011 because of its rich ecological and cultural diversity. The area is home to 11 Amerindian villages, and is designed to support conservation of biodiversity, sustainable resource use, and livelihood development. As a protected area, residents in the area are still able to use the land for their livelihoods; however, the area is closed off to tourists.
The conservation programme at Shell Beach began in the 1980s with Mr. Audley James, a turtle hunter turned conservationist, who noticed the decline in the sea turtle population, and Mr. Peter Prichard, British Turtle Zoologist. Mr. James, a resident of Shell Beach, with the support of Dr. Pritchard, was able to convince turtle hunters of the importance of conserving turtles and start protecting them. Currently, the area is under the Protected Area Commission, for which Mr. James serves as an advisor.
Shell Beach is an area of great significance, and continues to interest researchers around the world. Dr. Kelly Stewart and Dr. Catherine McClellan have satellite-tagged turtles on Shell Beach for the last two years with an aim to see their migration and habitat patterns. Dr. Kelly Stewart, who studies the genetics of turtle populations, population dynamics and by-catch in fisheries, noted that “Shell Beach has had one of the longest monitoring programmes in the world, beginning in the 1980s, and provides good protection and contributes to (continuation) of the species.”
Although their distribution is wide, the numbers of Leatherback turtles have seriously declined during the last century as a result of intense egg collection and fisheries by-catch. Globally, Leatherback status, according to IUCN, is listed as Vulnerable, but many subpopulations (such as in the Pacific and Southwest Atlantic) are Critically Endangered. Dr. Catherine McClellan, a Marine Biologist who has been doing field research for the last 26 years in freshwater and marine ecosystems, noted that “turtles are long-lived, and it is important to protect them at their different life stages.” She suggested not using turtle products, or engaging in the use of poaching for turtles.
Dr. Stewart also shared that, although citizens might be far away from these ecosystems, “turtles are vulnerable to our actions. We should be mindful of the seafood we buy, and our reliance on plastics. It is easy for a turtle to consume a plastic bag because it looks like a jellyfish.”
Ms. Devya Hemraj, a Scientific Officer at the University of Guyana, made the important connection, noting that “we need more conservation, and not consumption. Protected areas such as Shell Beach are important, but citizens in Georgetown have a role to play in taking care of our water bodies, especially due to garbage drift along the coast; fewer plastics provide a better chance for turtles to survive.”
She noted that people can engage in beach cleanups, community efforts, and stricter regulation should be implemented to prevent fishermen from fishing in the no-fishing zones.
As Guyana prepares for the ban on single-use plastics, which comes into effect in 2021, we urge you to start thinking consciously about how we use and dispose of single-use plastics. Let’s work together to protect our marine turtles.
You can share your ideas and questions by sending letters to: “Our Earth, Our Environment”, C/O ECEA Programme, Environmental Protection Agency, Ganges Street, Sophia, GEORGETOWN; or email us at: [email protected] or follow us on Facebook and Instagram.