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Sea turtle satellite tagging for migration study

Scientists have launched a satellite tagging program of the hawksbill sea turtle to map and analyse the critically endangered creature's movements to get a better picture of its nesting, migration and feeding behaviour.

Environmental charity Nature Conservancy teamed up with local conservation officers to conduct the first tagging program of its kind in the Arnavon Islands in the Solomon Islands -- the largest hawksbill rookery in the South Pacific.

"We're using satellite transmitters to get some really detailed in-depth information about where these turtles are going. So we're capturing nesting female turtles and then we're applying satellite tags, fibre-glassing them to the back of these females' shells, and then we're letting them go," explained Richard Hamilton from Nature Conservancy, adding that the adhesives attaching the GPS trackers disintegrate after about a year, allowing them to fall off.

While turtle tagging has been done before, a hawksbill satellite program has never been done on this scale in the Arnavons, which is a crucial breeding ground.

Hawksbills are classed as critically endangered, with world-wide populations declining about 80 percent in the past three turtle generations. Poaching for their shells and meat is a key cause for their decline. In fact, two of the tagged turtles were poached shortly after their tags were installed, according to the team.

"They're also being impacted by climate change with a lot of the nesting beaches now being increasingly eroded from sea-level rise and storm events," added Hamilton.

Female hawksbills nest just once every seven years on average, said Hamilton. Once they leave the protected beach on the Arnavons, they return to their distant foraging grounds. Scientists are not entirely sure where they go. They hope the tagging program will help answer that.

"Those GPS tags are taking a fix every three hours when the turtle comes to the surface. And that's giving us a really detailed understanding of fine scale movements of these turtles during their nesting period. And also it will give us some very detailed information of where these turtles re-migrate back to their foraging ground," said Hamilton.

The data will also help conservationists determine if the boundaries of the Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area (ACMCA) are sufficient to protect the hawksbills while nesting. — Reuters