The Comprehensive Florida Hawksbill Research and Conservation Program‘s mission is to incorporate the principles of conservation biology in the study and protection of the region’s hawksbill turtles and the habitats in which they live. In-water, mark-racapture studies have been undertaken to characterize the hawksbill aggregations found in SE Florida waters, and numerous programs have been developed to engage the local dive community in the protection of sea turtles and coral reef habitats. This program is hosted by the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation, located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Why Hawksbills? Of the five species of marine turtles that visit Florida waters, hawksbills reman the most mysterious to scientists. Because they don’t utilize Florida’s beaches for nesting and have been traditionally thought of as rare in Florida waters, little has been done to characterize the hawksbill aggregations that, for decades, have been so familiar to SCUBA divers along Florida’s Southeast Coast. As a highly endangered species and an important member of the coral reef community, understanding and conserving hawksbill turtles in this part of their range is important to the future of both.
A Tough Road... Hawksbills have been nearly wiped out worldwide by humans mostly for their beautiful shells. For centuries, a lucrative global trade in hawksbill shell (a.k.a. “tortioseshell” which was used primarily for stylish personal items and artwork) reduced hawksbill populations to near extinction. Though greatly reduced, these practices continue throughout their range. Combined with the additional pressures of egg harvesting and habitat loss, the future of this species remains uncertain. International conservation efforts over the last four decades have and will continue to work to stabilize hawksbill populations around the world, and we are proud to contribute to that effort.
What Can We Do? By studying the hawksbills of Florida, we are contributing to the ongoing effort to recover Caribbean hawksbill populations. Large-scale, multi-national efforts are underway to stimulate hawksbill conservation, in large part due to their close association with coral reefs. Because they don’t nest with any regularity in Florida, those we encounter here have immigrated from a variety of distant locations in the Caribbean. As a result, the hawksbills being studied in Palm Beach represent a ‘melting pot’ of regional populations, and can provide valuable insight to the biology and conservation of this species on a regional scale.
The Reefs. Just off the Florida coast, a treasure of biological diversity has been recognized and enjoyed by divers and fishermen for decades, but remained virtually unnoticed by marine scientists. The reefs of South Florida have a rich geologic history, and are home to a staggering diversity of marine organisms. The warm waters of the Gulf Stream come closest to the continental U.S. in Palm Beach County, bringing a remarkable array of tropical and sub-tropical marine species to relatively high latitudes, most within just a mile of shore. These conditions are perfect for the growth of sponges, corals, and algae, which are the primary prey items of hawksbill turtles.