Pacific leatherback turtle populations have declined alarmingly over the past 25 years, and for management and recovery efforts to be effective, obtaining accurate estimates of current abundance and distribution of critical habitats is essential. In some locations there are summer nesting turtles which remain unstudied and which are of particular interest to conservationists today, as these are believed to (possibly) represent a distinctive genetic or behavioural stock.

The overall goal of the project is to ensure the continued survival of the leatherback turtle population and raise local peoples’ understanding and appreciation of the value of the species. The specific objective of this project will be to build on a previous NMFS-funded scoping mission in 2010 which identified Waisurione, on the island of Malaita, as a potential site for monitoring summer nesters, and to train community members in sea turtle biology and collection of basic nesting data for leatherbacks during the (currently) unknown summer nesting period.

DSC_6086 - CopyKey threats to turtles in the Solomon Islands include collection of eggs and take of juvenile and adult turtles for consumption (although turtles are considered sacred at some sites, they are eaten at most others, either as part of cultural practices or simply as a protein alternative), bycatch in artisanal and commercial fisheries (to a large extent this also includes foreign offshore fisheries), and possibly climatic factors including increased storm erosion and decreased nesting area availability.

The project employs similar agreements to those held with communities in Papua New Guinea (PNG) since 2006. Project objectives, remuneration packages, work duties and responsibilities were all clearly communicated to the community of Waisurione throughout the project’s start up phase and through a preliminary site visit in February 2014. The project relies on a team of 26 volunteer rangers lead by two coordinators. All volunteers are elected by the community and local stakeholders. From a stakeholder perspective, the tribal land the beach encompasses is accessible due to a conservational land agreement between the main villages from each of the three tribal lands: Wairaha (in the tribal land of Ausi), Waisurione (in the tribal land of Au’vaura) and Hauhui (in the tribal land of Po’otori). The agreement was established under the Waihau Foundation (a local NGO in its infancy; setup and run by the villagers of Waisurione) and grants freedom to conduct conservational activities along the entire length of the beach.

DSC_6204Key objectives for the project include conducting site visits and training courses at Waisurione by Dr. Pilcher, John Ben and James Williams, with the collaboration of the Solomon Islands Department of Environment and Conservation (Tia Masolo); establishing a monitoring schedule of nightly beach walks, and developing recording and reporting protocols whereby data is systematically collected from nesting leatherbacks and kept in a database for each season throughout the project; establishing follow-up communication protocols whereby community members can transfer the findings to MRF for analysis and reporting and seek guidance on project activities as needed; developing, alongside the community, the design of a potential long-term monitoring program, and determining suitable development projects for the community and provide assistance in delivering on their wishes, creating greater buy-in and support from the wider community.

This project was funded via a NOAA-PIRO Grant along with additional funds from the Rufford Foundation and the Prince Bernhardt Foundation for Nature.