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Save the sea turtles! Andersen teams with local university to conserve species

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Melissa B. White
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: This is the second part of a series featuring conservation programs managed by the 36th Civil Engineer Squadron Environmental Flight.

Team Andersen has partnered up with a scientific research team from the University of Guam this year to help make the base's beaches cleaner and greener -- with turtles -- by participating in the sea turtle monitoring, protection and educational outreach program on Guam.

The program aims to conserve the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle and endangered green sea turtle species that occasionally make their way to the rocky and sandy shores of Andersen for foraging, nesting and residential behaviors. The 36th Civil Engineer Squadron Environmental Flight will use the findings from the research along with current and new conservation efforts they implemented to update the AAFB Sea Turtle Management Program for 2015.

"We are contributing to the overall recovery of these endangered species," said Ruben Guieb, 36th CES Environmental Flight Natural and Cultural Resources Conservation Program chief. "We are taking active and aggressive actions toward being good environmental stewards and we do care about their recovery. We will use this information to better understand the species and track any changes in their population in the future."

An integral part of the program includes field studies where the Tarague Basin on base is surveyed and monitored for turtle activity by the UOG scientific program. This part of the program began in March and will continue until the end of March 2015 in order to gather sufficient scientific data to determine a baseline of how often and how many turtles come to the base each year, along with the behaviors they exhibit.

"I've worked on turtle projects before, and this one is different because this beach has so little data from the past," said Marylou Staman, University of Guam Sea Turtle Monitoring, Protection and Educational Outreach on Guam project manager. "We're working to determine a hard nesting season and to gather really good data about the turtles and their habits in order to see through the next few years if what we're doing is helping and they keep coming back here."

Since they started surveying the beaches five months ago, Staman and her team have monitored 14 green sea turtle nests on the base, which resulted in a total of 984 hatchlings, based on the empty shells left behind. She said the statistics are critical because sea turtle biologists predict only one out of every 1,000-2,000 hatchlings survive to adulthood. Green sea turtles take 25-30 years to reach sexual maturity. That means maybe only one turtle from this season could return to Andersen in 25-30 years to reproduce.

The scientists survey the beach at least six days each week to monitor turtle activity and any active nests. When a nest is discovered, they mark off the site with pink tape and observe the nest daily until the turtle is finished nesting in that location. This process could take several weeks because the turtle lays eggs in the same location in two-week intervals, providing about 70-120 eggs each time.

When nesting occurs at the Tarague Beach recreational area, the 36th Force Support Squadron Outdoor Recreation does its part to protect the endangered species by closing off any campsites that may be adjacent turtle nests. They also provide campers with educational material on the turtles to make guests aware of the creatures and how they can help keep them safe.

During Staman's almost-daily treks on the beach, any activities she notices that may harm the endangered species and their recovery are reported to the appropriate base agencies.

"People don't realize that dogs are attracted to the scent of the nests, or if a dog is with its owner and leaves its mark on the beach, then it's going to attract boonie (stray) dogs that could endanger the nests," Staman said. "So if I see someone down here with a dog, then I report it ... and I've started seeing more signs put up by the base to let people know dogs aren't allowed. It's nice to work on a beach where you feel like people are really proactive and giving you support."

The base has shown initiative in other ways this year by installing turtle-safe lighting by the Tarague Beach area. The bulbs are designed to emit light in lower wavelengths turtles are unable to see. This change eliminates a deterrence that may have minimized or prevented nesting in the past and will allow emerging hatchlings a greater chance of making it to the water by following the moonlight reflecting off the ocean without the disorientation of artificial lighting.

Andersen also hosted a beach clean-up on Earth Day in April, with plans to have another one in September as part of the 20th Guam International Coastal Cleanup. This practice coincides with the base's goals of protecting the turtles by preventing danger of entanglement in litter.

"I think the turtles are really lucky to have the beaches on Andersen because the base's support is really good and there are fewer and fewer nesting beaches for them," said Staman. "If this is just the start of a long-term project, I think Andersen has the power to do something great."