Conservation efforts in rural Japan: Kumejima sea turtle museum
At the Kumejima turtle museum, I learned a lot about sea turtles in a more practical and real setting, in the sense that I gained my knowledge by interacting with experts and turtles instead of reading books and papers. For example, I learned that Loggerheads tend to be the most curious of the sea turtles, they also have the strongest bite since their big head and big jaws are used for crushing shellfish, so watch out for your fingers if you make the poor decision of petting them. I also learned that Loggerheads only come to Japan to nest, so you don’t see them as commonly as Green turtles or even Hawksbills if you are a SCUBA diver. Their peak nesting season is between May and July and they tend to nest closer to the ocean, while Greens have a peak nesting season between June and August here in Okinawa, and they also nest further away from the ocean. Males have longer tails than females, that’s how you distinguish the two sexes. 2-3 months after mating, nesting begins and the mom will nest 4-5 times per season, with about 2 weeks in between each nesting. You can tell more or less which nests are from the same individual by the number of eggs (plus or minus 5) and the egg size. Threats to sea turtle eggs at Kumejima include the Akamata snakes, crabs, birds, ants, and even roots of plants, since the roots can grow really deep and make it difficult for the babies to dig themselves out.
There are many stranded sea turtles that are found each year at Kumejima, around at least 30 reported per year, likely much higher since many may not be seen, and since Hatenohama area (The beach of a tiny island east of the main Kume island where many turtles nest) is not commonly surveyed given the need for a boat to get there. A main cause of sea turtle death is being caught in fishing nets. Sea turtles need to breathe air, and if they are caught in nets often they cannot surface to breathe and they will suffocate. It seems that some local fishermen are indifferent to this, since the fewer turtles there are the less they would get caught in their nets and be in their way. Another common cause of death is ingestion of fishing hooks or plastic. Take the following incidents that are displayed at the turtle museum as examples (The images are a little graphic but I believe that people cannot only want to conserve an animal because it is “cute”, they need to see the real side of things and see the consequences of human actions):
1. Hawksbill died by swallowing fishing hook
A stranded Hawksbill turtle that was reported on September 11, 2007. The turtle was taken in to be monitored as it was already in a weakened state, however, it died two weeks after. After dissecting the turtle it became clear that the cause of death is a fishing hook that was stuck inside of its throat.
2.Green turtle died by ingesting plastic
On July 9, 2009, we took in a green sea turtle that was reported to us.
It was about 40 cm long and weighed about 6 kg, it was very thin and in a weakened state, and died after two days. Necropsy showed that there was a lot of plastic in its digestive system. It is the first time in Kumejima that we witnessed a green sea turtle dying from ingesting this amount of plastic.
This is another reason why sea turtles are in decline.
This is an image of the actual trash taken out of the turtle. Image from the Kumejima Turtle Museum. The staff at the turtle museum work extremely hard to conserve and save sea turtles, their efforts are sometimes not recognized as conservation can sometimes still be a foreign concept in rural towns in Japan. The Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys, a bigger-scale counterpart to Umigamekan (Sea Turtle Museum), is extremely respected for all the conservation and rehabilitation work that it is doing, the turtles there are also very lucky to have one of the best exotic animal veterinarians in the world to look after them. I hope in the future that the Umigamekan can get the recognition it deserves, locally and internationally, and that it would also be able to get veterinary training in order to save more sea turtles than it already is (There are few exotic animal vets in Japan, not mentioning sea turtle vets in Kumejima).