UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Sea turtle conservation and ecosystem-based management with a focus on green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and seagrass beds Wabnitz, Colette Catherine Chantal


The design of effective species management and recovery plans for sea turtle populations requires targets that are informed by an understanding of knowledge gained at the level of individuals/populations in the context of the wider goal of protecting an ecosystem's structural and functional attributes. In this thesis I present the first detailed investigation of the multiple levels at which sea turtles, particularly green turtles (Chelonia mydas), interact with ecosystems. I begin by developing a framework for an age-structured population-level assessment of food consumption for hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), loggerhead (Caretta caretta), and green turtles. This entailed construction of species-specific growth models for the western Atlantic, and subsequent integration of results with morphometric, survival, abundance, and food conversion efficiency to derive consumption estimates. At the ecosystem level, I developed models for the Caribbean and Hawai’í, where green turtles are present at very low abundances and reaching carrying capacity, respectively. In the Caribbean, results showed that green turtle grazing of seagrass substantially altered habitat complexity, reducing the refuge role of seagrass to reef fish and invertebrates, and leading to potentially dramatic changes in species biomass and composition. In Hawai‘i, by feeding on algae, green turtles were found to contribute to the resilience of reefs in the face of disturbance, a functional role that needs to be explicitly included in future studies of reef dynamics. Taken together, these findings highlight the need to consider trophic and indirect interactions in the evaluation of sea turtles’ role within ecosystems. Accurate and reliable estimates of foraging habitat extent are essential to inform realistic and sustainable turtle recovery targets, particularly given the current degraded state of coastal ecosystems. Using Landsat satellite imagery, I present a novel mapping approach for seagrass habitats at large scales. Such regional initiatives are also urgently needed if the international community is to meet aims to conserve 10 – 30 % of specific habitats. A comparison between reef extent, determined using remote sensing and existing data, showed that discrepancies ranged from + 1,316 % to - 64 %, underlining our limited ability to ascertain progress towards adopted global marine conservation targets based on current data.

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