Since 1992 a marine turtle conservation and monitoring project has been conducted on the beaches of Northern Cyprus. Here the endangered green (Chelonia mydas) and loggerhead (Caretta caretta) turtles nest. This is a very well established project conducting excellent research and providing invaluable experience for under-graduate students. Each year self-funded volunteers work on this project. This project is carried out in the northern part of the island inhabited by Turkish Cypriots. They are an incredibly friendly nation and it is an extremely safe place to stay.
MTCP aims to minimise the threat of introduced canine (stray dog and fox) predators by screening all nests with protective cages. SPOT works to protect the nesting beaches themselves from human threats, by delivering information to and working with authorities to protect key sites. We encourage local artisanal fishers to minimise the mortality rate of sea turtles that get caught in their fishing gear, by distributing materials to them on appropriate sea turtle handling and by developing and encouraging alternative methods. MTCP provide annual data on the status of sea turtles and their habitats in North Cyprus and University of Exeter produce a comprehensive range of research outputs on Mediterranean sea turtles. SPOT promotes education in schools and delivers classes each year on sea turtle conservation. We also organise field trips for school groups.
The project is a collaboration between the University of Exeter’s Marine Turtle Research group (MTRG) which has established and collaborated with numerous monitoring and research projects around the world, and the Society for the Protection of Turtles in Northern Cyprus (SPOT).
The project is led by Meryem Özkan under the guidance of Prof. Annette Broderick, Prof. Brendan Godley, Dr. Robin Snape and the chair of SPOT Kutlay Keço.
During the last decade, the numbers of green and loggerhead turtles nesting on the beaches monitored by MTCP has been consistently increasing, which is an indication that our conservation efforts are paying off. As a result of our efforts, five Natura 2000 Specially Protected Areas have been designated and everyone on the island knows that sea turtles are under protection.
Of the world’s seven species of sea turtle, the green turtle, (Chelonia mydas) and the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) both lay nests in Cyprus.
Globally the green turtle is categorised as endangered and the loggerhead turtle as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. In the Mediterranean both green and loggerhead turtles have distinct populations called Regional Management Units (RMU). The loggerhead turtle RMU/sub-population was in 2015 listed by the IUCN redlist as being of least concern. This is because, despite high rates of mortality in fisheries, conservation efforts at nest sites in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus have been fruitful and an overall trend in the number of nests laid annually is increasing.The loggerhead is the most abundant marine turtle species in the Mediterranean, with an estimated 2000-3000 females nesting annually. The main nesting concentrations are in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus and there are possibly significant nesting grounds in Libya. Minor nesting aggregations have been described in Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Italy, Syria and Tunisia with some sporadic nesting being reported in the West Mediterranean in recent years.
Green turtle nesting is much more localised, with most nesting occurring in Turkey and Cyprus with small numbers in Israel, Egypt and Syria. The nesting population for the Mediterranean has been estimated at 300-400 females annually.
From our results since 1992, we estimate that 10% of the loggerhead and 30% of the green turtles nesting in the Mediterranean nest in Cyprus, highlighting the importance of both Ronnas Bay in Karpaz and Alagadi beaches as the 3rd and 5th most important nesting beaches of the green turtle in the entire Mediterranean.
Whilst many nests successfully hatch, others fail completely. One of the major reasons for this is the high level of predation, mainly by foxes and dogs. A key aim of this project is to reduce the levels of predation by screening nests. Only a small fraction, perhaps 1 of 1000 hatchlings survive to reach adulthood, somewhere between 15 to 30 years after hatching. By protecting the nests and increasing the number of hatchlings that reach the sea we aim to boost the number of surviving adults in the future.
A major threat to marine turtles in Cyprus and in other foraging grounds around the east Mediterranean, is mortality as bycatch in fisheries. Each year many dead turtles are stranded on North Cyprus beaches having drowned in nets or entangled in swallowed fishing lines. SPOT conduct educational outreach workshops and presentations to artisan fishers who we gather together in their ports. Through this effort we have built a participatory relationship with fishers and fishers are even aiding our research by informing us when they see and catch turtles.
The vast quantities of marine plastic and trash deposited on the beaches by visitors also threaten the survival of Mediterranean turtles. Many of the turtles we find stranded on beaches we dissect to confirm sex and to analyse stomach contents. In many of these stomach samples we find plastic bags and other items of debris which turtles are attracted to. Plastic can cause suffocation and death and may lead to secondary health problems.
Whilst the loss of beach habitat as a result of tourist development is a problem in many areas of the Mediterranean, until very recently this has not been a major threat to these populations in North Cyprus. And there still remain many remote and unspoilt beaches where turtles continue to nest in significant numbers. However, we are now starting to see unchecked development and building without environmental impact assessment around key habitats. For example the widening of a main road behind Ronnas Bay, the third most important nesting site for green turtles in the Mediterranean. A lit walkway and two major hotel and housing development projects were recently completed behind kilometres of nesting beach in the Iskele region, with no assessment of the impact on the important sea turtles. Over the last decade we have seen the expansion of many restaurants and hotels close to turtle nesting beaches, encroaching on and degrading the available nesting habitat.
A legacy of peer-reviewed publications has been built by MTRG from studies conducted in North Cyprus (see publications). Research interests have always been extremely broad, as is the nature of marine turtle research as even now so much is yet to be understood. Larger research campaigns have included turtle habitat use and at-sea behaviour both in Cyprus and at their distant foraging grounds and determination of major migratory corridors (see tracking). These studies enable local and international designation of protected areas toward conservation of priority marine sites to protect turtles where they are foraging. Determination of sex ratios through long-term incubation temperature studies, population genetics, the effects of climate change on marine turtles and the interaction of marine turtles with fisheries.