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Report From the French Frigate Shoals — Part 5

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posted 08/04/05

Researcher Finds Unexpected Result: Perspective

By Joe Spring, Columbia University Earth and Environmental Sciences Journalism Student

Before I left for French Frigate Shoals in June, my adviser Kim Kastens suggested I keep a weekly list of lessons learned. Now that I have finished my fieldwork and have returned to New York, I have had time to review the things I learned from studying green sea turtles and living on a remote atoll. Some of the lessons are strictly related to my project, but some are much broader in nature and touch on our relationships with the Earth and each other.

Lesson 1: There is no such thing as "isolated" or "remote" on Earth

I was reminded of this again today when I saw New Yorkers putting out their trash. On my nightly walks around an 11-acre island over 3,000 miles from the nearest continent, I collected ocean debris from all over the world. Migrating birds brought plastic they had ingested from thousands of miles away and inadvertently fed it to their chicks. Turtles arrived at East Island with tumors they had likely contracted in polluted bays and lagoons far over the horizon.

Before leaving the island, Joe Spring (fourth from left) kicks it up with fellow student scientists. Photo credit: Joe Spring/USFWS/NMFS

Lesson 2: Communicate, collaborate, and always admit what you don’t know.

During my first experience in the field working with hawksbill sea turtles in the Caribbean four years ago, my supervisor, Zandy Hillis Starr, said something during the first day of training that has stuck with me: "Never to be afraid to say 'I don’t know'." Admitting what I do not know, which is too much to mention here, freed me to ask questions of scientists from many different disciplines and to learn more than I had ever hoped.

As a result, “my” project is much better informed and grew more from the ideas, assistance and analysis provided by other scientists than because of anything I have done alone. My work would not have been possible without help from people at NMFS and USFW, Columbia University, Colorado State University, and the Center for International Earth Science Information Networks.

Lesson 3: If you give life a chance, it will usually find a way to carry on.

During the six weeks that Lisa Canty, the other biologist on East Island, and I monitored the turtles, 333 females attempted to nest. In total, I found 32 turtles with tumors. One turtle alone had over twenty tumors. The next step in my project will be to work with other scientists to individually assess each tumor in order to determine whether the disease is advancing or regressing.

Out of 332 nesting female turtles examined, Joe Spring and fellow researcher Lisa Canty found that 32 had tumors. Photo credit: Joe Spring/USFWS/NMFS

All that means nothing to the turtles, though, who are simply trying to survive the only way they know how: by continuing to follow their age-old instincts despite all the hurdles before them. I saw turtles with tumors, missing flippers or cracked shells that had traveled hundreds or thousands of miles through the open ocean to mate and nest on East Island.

In the early 1970’s, overfishing reduced green sea turtle numbers until only 172 turtles were estimated to nest on East Island between 1973 and 1974. Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, protection from Hawaiian state laws, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, that number has slowly risen. In 2003 and 2004, an estimated 767 turtles nested on the island.

This is not to say the population is where it should be or entirely safe from human threats (the tumors are a reminder of this), but it does show that a recovery may be gathering momentum. Most of all, it proves there is always hope.


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