For the second time in four months, researchers studying endangered hawksbill turtles in St. Thomas waters have reported an apparent poaching of the animals.
Scott Eanes, a graduate student working with a group at the University of the Virgin Islands, said a woman who was fishing near Range Key, in the area of a juvenile turtle habitat off the western coast of St. Thomas, found two hawksbill shells that she turned over to authorities. It is believed that someone killed the turtles for their meat and discarded the shells.
In February, snorkelers at Range Key found a turtle’s severed head.
It is illegal to kill sea turtles — or even to harass them — because they are an endangered species. Poachers can be fined up to $10,000 for each specimen and imprisoned for up to 60 days.
Eanes has been conducting a study at the site since September, tagging more than 30 turtles in an effort to learn more about their movements and their habits. He and his team have also placed sound recorders underwater to track the turtles, and planted depth gauges on two of their subjects.
The turtles were not born in these waters but are spending their adolescence here. In a year or so, they will move on to another area as adults. The ultimate goal is to protect them and promote the growth of the species.
Eanes called the turtle killing “an enormous waste.” The juveniles have had no opportunity to reproduce and they are relatively small so they don’t even provide much meat for the poacher.
“The saddest thing of all is it’s very hard for turtles to make it to that age,” Eanes said. As hatchlings and as very young animals, they are extremely vulnerable to predators. Once they are juveniles, they stand a good chance of making it to adulthood, and then of multiplying.
Eanes had a warning for would-be poachers. Although it’s impossible for enforcement officers to be everywhere all the time, he said he’s been assured that the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resource is stepping up their surveillance and enforcement efforts. The researchers and volunteers will also be watchful.
He said they will post signs letting people know the penalties for poaching and are working to install video surveillance. “We’re going to be very vigilant,” he said.