Foundation Preservation Klein Bonaire , in conjunction with Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire, has been successful in it first year of a 3- year research project headed by marine biologist, Dr. Robert van Dam.

This project is being conducted on and around Klein Bonaire. Along with turtle nesting surveys and turtle tagging for research purposes, we have fitted two Hawksbill turtles with satellite transmitters and are now tracking their movements.

Robert is continuing to monitor the status of Klein Bonaire as an undeveloped and protected island and we are proud to say it is still the same Klein Bonaire that we all know and love.

Thank you for your interest and concern for helping preserve this unique island!

Dr. Robert van Dam’s interview with the Bonaire Reporter.

 

Dr. Robert van Dam is the new Project Director of the Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire (STCB, otherwise known as the Turtle Club). He’s been on the island for over a year now and has made great strides in protecting Klein Bonaire and its turtles.

“I’ve been involved with turtles in a serious way since 1992, but in a non-serious way ever since 1985. Why turtles? Because studying them is a great way to learn about the environment. They’re such charismatic creatures and they’re so very vulnerable, both while they’re hatching and when they’re in the sea. I feel that if we can protect them we can protect other animals. It’s a big challenge, and I love a challenge.”

Biologist Dr. van Dam is considered the foremost expert on hawksbill turtles in the Caribbean. He received his PhD from the University of Amsterdam; he did research projects at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, in Puerto Rico and Mexico. He’s studied turtles’ growth rates, movement, diet and behavior (ecology and population dynamics). “It’s a never-ending project to study these animals,” he says.

Van Dam was invited to Bonaire by the Turtle Club and the Foundation to Preserve Klein Bonaire (FPKB), which are funding him, to take over the turtle research program. “There’s lots of potential here,” he says. “because there are lots of interested people already. The program just needs direction. The number of turtles looks good and healthy, and the situation here can serve as a good example to the rest of the Caribbean. There’s lots of potential and a training ground here. My goal is to do it right.”

Dr. van Dam has worked on turtle research projects in remote areas in Mexico and on Mona Island (in the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico) where the turtles had no human interference except for fishermen. “Bonaire is unusual for me in that way,” Dr. van Dam continues, “because the turtles must co-exist with people here. I’ve worked mostly with fishermen in the past; this is the first time with recreational divers. It’s really remarkable because these people are very supportive. They want to help.”

“Here in Bonaire we have two groups of turtles. There are the nesting females with the accompanying pursuing males. They come seasonably to reproduce, every two or three years we believe. The second group is made up of ‘residents,’ mostly juveniles who, when they are fully grown, go back to where they were born to reproduce. We don’t believe that our turtles go transatlantic because it’s too hard for them to make it up to the Gulf Stream which would take them across. Loggerheads may go as far south as Brazil.” The exception is the Leatherbacks which are really migratory and are strong enough to go against the current.”

Dr. van Dam continues, “Turtles are a shared resource because they go from place to place. If we have protection here it will affect other places and vice versa. Therefore this has to be a regional effort.” He likens it to lobsters. “When they spawn the larvae most likely won’t settle right there; it will go on downstream.”

“ We have good contacts in the Caribbean – in Venezuela with university students there, in Aruba, Curacao and Barbados where they have a very strong turtle research program.”

“In Bonaire we have two regular projects now. There are areas where we count the animals or nests, primarily on Klein Bonaire – numbers of nests, what species and how many. The other is counting the number of animals in feeding areas on Klein Bonaire and in Lac Bai. These are mostly juvenile Green and Hawksbills.

Then there are two special projects that we want to begin. One is putting transmitters on nesting females to find out where they go, how far and what migration paths they take. Another project is genetic analysis of blood samples, checking their DNA. This has already been done in the Caribbean and we have a baseline – a data base with which to compare it.” This is another way to determine where individual turtles may have been by comparing the DNA of Bonaire’s turtles with those from other islands or countries in the region.

Van Dam believes that for success there should be a continuous pressure of law enforcement. “The Mexicans have cracked down on poaching, and now Mexico’s population of hawksbills is one of the largest in the world – this just after a little over 10 years of law enforcement.”

On a positive note, Dr. van Dam says that “turtle meat is an acquired taste,” and with a change of generations so might there be a change in tastes! “This would be great for the turtles, especially during the nesting period.”

email rpvandam@yahoo.com.

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