Ulithi Atoll Sea Turtle Research

Supporting community efforts to conserve a globally important sea turtle population in remote Micronesia.

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Overview

One of the many small islands that comprise Ulithi Atoll. © Wayne Sentman

Ulithi Atoll, a remote cluster of islands in the Federated States of Micronesia, is home to one of the largest nesting populations of endangered green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) in the Pacific Ocean. While green turtles are threatened with extinction globally, the population in Ulithi is still considered to be healthy, thanks in part to traditional management systems that have been in place for generations.

But today's world presents new challenges to Ulithi's sea turtles. While Ulithi itself remains relatively pristine, the turtles that nest there venture well outside Ulithi's boundaries. Through satellite tracking and the use of flipper tags, researchers have found that green turtles that nest in Ulithi regularly migrate to the waters of the Philippines, Malaysia, and elsewhere. Moreover, pervasive threats such as global warming and plastic pollution are impacting sea turtles everywhere—even in remote locations such as Ulithi.

Since 2007, we have been working with the community-run Ulithi Marine Turtle Conservation Project to study and protect Ulithi's sea turtle population for future generations.

Threats

Green turtles are globally endangered due to accidental capture in fisheries (bycatch), unsustainable consumption of turtles and their eggs, pollution, habitat loss, and global warming. While they are relatively protected in remote Ulithi Atoll, Ulithi's sea turtles are known to migrate to the waters of Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, and other areas where they face greater threats.

In Ulithi, and in most remote island communities, sea turtles are a main source of protein in an area where food is scarce, and turtles have been taken regularly as a food source for centuries. Fortunately, sea turtles are an important part of the local culture, revered by the Ulithian people, and their harvest has been carefully managed to this day by tribal law and age-old tradition. But the modern world presents new threats to Ulithi's sea turtles that may make traditional management practices insufficient. Without knowledge about the sea turtle population's status and trend, it is impossible for the Ulithian people to assure the survival of Ulithi's sea turtles into the future.

How We Are Helping

Since 2007, Oceanic Society has been supporting the community-based Ulithi Marine Turtle Program to study nesting sea turtles on Ulithi's uninhabited islands and promote sea turtle conservation and management.

Ulithi Marine Turtle Program field crew

The program began in 2005 with the support of a few strong community leaders in Falalop, and has since tagged and monitored nearly 3,000 green turtles nesting on the remote and uninhabited islands of Gielop and Loosiep. In addition, 12 female green turtles were fitted with satellite transmitters and successfully tracked to their feeding grounds in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Japan. Data generated by the project have been published and used by the State of the World's Sea Turtles (SWOT) Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and other institutions to broaden understanding of local and global trends in turtle abundance.

Since the beginning the field crew has consisted completely of local men who were trained in tagging, collecting morphometric data, and taking tissue samples for DNA analysis. Many of the original crew members are still working on the project and now train new field assistants.

After almost 10 years of operation, the community takes great pride in the project and it has become something they look forward to each year. The sea turtle work has also laid the foundation for other conservation projects in Ulithi that Oceanic Society has helped to develop, such as the establishment of a reef monitoring program, conservation-based volunteer work on the islands, and creation of venues for eco-tourism.

But the work in Ulithi is not done. Continuing to monitor the sea turtle population year after year is critical to our ability to detect trends and respond to changes in the population's status. Your support to this program will help the people of Ulithi assure a healthy future for their globally important sea turtle population.

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