Researchers conducting a tag-and-track study at a newly discovered turtle habitat were shocked Tuesday to learn of suspected poaching near the site.
Snorkelers found the severed head of a turtle by Range Key near the Cyril King Airport runway. Scott Eanes, the graduate student conducting the study at the University of the Virgin Islands, said the animal appears to have been a juvenile hawksbill, like the ones he has been studying since September.
Under the Endangered and Indigenous Species Act of 1990, it is illegal to kill, take, or harass turtles. Convictions are punishable by fines of between $100 and $10,000 for each specimen involved and imprisonment of as much as 60 days.
Roy A. Pemberton, Jr., director of Fish and Wildlife at the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, had not yet seen the evidence when he spoke with the Source Wednesday morning, but had talked with experts who had seen it and said it appears to have been a clean cut, indicating that it was man-made and intentional. No other parts of the turtle had been found.
The discovery came just after widespread local publicity about the research study. But both Pemberton and Eanes said it was likely that the turtle was killed prior to those reports.
It’s hard to say just how long ago the head was severed “because it was in the water,” Eanes said. But he estimated that the turtle was killed “less than a week ago … probably four to seven days ago.”
The hawksbill is known for its beautiful shell, and Eanes said that is often the motivation for poaching on the global market. But Pemberton said that while that may be true in Japan and some other areas, in his experience, that is not the case in the Virgin Islands.
“Most of the poaching here has been done for eggs and meat … every turtle is edible,” Pemberton said.
Last year there were “less than six” known incidents in the territory, he said.
He declined to speculate how many may go undetected or to estimate the scale of turtle poaching in the territory, but said that curbing it is a significant aspect of Fish and Wildlife’s mandate. “It’s critical” that no turtles be lost since they are endangered.
Division staffers sometimes discover problems themselves, and they also rely on reports from the public.
“We get a lot of calls from all segments of society,” Pemberton said. The good news in this week’s grisly sighting was that “someone reported it.”
The public perception may be that local fishermen are to blame for most of the killing, but Pemberton said “nine times out of 10, in a lot of these cases, it’s not a fisherman.”
In fact, commercial fishermen are often the good citizens who report suspected poaching to the division.
Pemberton said the agency works closely with its counterparts in Puerto Rico and with federal authorities to discourage poaching. It conducts outreach and education and tries to deter the practice by catching and punishing poachers.
“We have a case pending right now,” he said, that involves a person who was discovered by Customs and Border Control with a boatload of various endangered marine life, including turtles. Federal authorities have taken charge of that case and “they’re moving towards” prosecution.
Eanes’ project is being conducted under a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, and involves juvenile hawksbill turtles living in a relatively small area. By last week he and his team had captured 26 turtles, taken genetic samples from them, tagged them, and released them back into the water. The genetic material should help trace the turtles’ origin, and the tags should allow researchers to identify them once they migrate to their adult habitats. All of the research is aimed at finding ways to protect them and encourage population growth.
Given the high visibility of the area, Eanes said it’s hard to believe anyone would deliberately set out to poach turtles there; he thinks the killing may have been opportunistic. He also said he doesn’t think that the turtle that was killed was one that had been tagged. But he added that the “unfortunate reality” is that now “it will never be part of the larger study.”
Suspicious activity can be reported by calling Fish and Wildlife at 1-340-775-6762.