Marine Investigator Todd Steiner
The Catch Conservation Fund caught up with Marine Investigator Todd Steiner, Executive
Director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project (STRP), to get an update on the Cocos Island
Shark and Sea Turtle Tagging Expedition.
The Catch Conservation Fund: Todd, Thank you so much for joining us. It's been a little over a month
since your return from Cocos Island, and I would like to get your impressions about the expedition and a
few developments that have taken place since. As a brief introduction to our readers, would you mind
telling us how you first got involved in the field of marine conservation and what drew you to it?
Todd Steiner: I began my career as a wildlife biologist at Everglades National Park in the early ‘80s,
with a strong interest in endangered reptiles and amphibians, including sea turtles. While there, I
monitored sea turtle nesting activity in the Park and also at the Dry Tortugas National Park in south
Florida. I eventually moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and began working at the Earth Island
Institute under the guidance of legendary conservationist, David Brower. I founded the Sea Turtle
Restoration Project while at Earth Island in 1989, helping to formalize my work with turtle biologists in
Central America that began in 1987, and we eventually became an independent organization from Earth
Island in 1997.
The last Cocos expedition was a great success and significantly increased the scope of our work in the
Cocos Islands. Previous trips had concentrated almost exclusively on tagging sharks, with the exception
of this past March, when we captured and tagged two Green Turtles. On this trip, I concentrated my
efforts on sea turtles, while my colleague Randall Arauz from PRETOMA focused on sharks. We ended up
tagging 26 turtles in all - 25 Greens and 1 Hawksbill. We also began a non-invasive photo-ID turtle
project, which may have value to turtle researchers around the world.
The Catch Conservation Fund: You've been Executive Director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project
since 1989. When did you first notice the decline in turtle populations, and how has the
situation changed over the past twenty years?
Todd Steiner: There are seven species of sea turtles and thousands of individual nesting populations, so
at any one time, some may be increasing while others are decreasing. For example, Olive Ridley turtles
in southern Pacific Mexico were being hammered in the 1980s when STRP was working with local coastal
communities in Nicaragua. In fact, turtles we tagged in Nicaragua started being returned from Mexico,
and I traced them to a slaughterhouse in the state of Oaxaca, where 50,000 or more turtles were
slaughtered annually for their skins to make purses and shoes.
Our first big campaign was to shut down this slaughterhouse and to end the legal slaughter of turtles in
Mexico. It took a lot of hard work and determination, but we were finally successful in 1990. The Olive
Ridley population of Oaxaca has increased significantly since. On the other hand, populations of Pacific
Leatherback and Loggerhead Sea Turtles are crashing now. Both are extremely vulnerable to industrial
long line and drift-gill net vessels fishing for tuna, swordfish and shark. If we don’t curb this threat, they
will both go extinct. This is where we are concentrating most of our advocacy and policy work today.
The Catch Conservation Fund: How important are sea turtles to the marine ecosystem? Seriously,
what would happen if they were to all go extinct?
Todd Steiner: The most important lesson in nature is that all things are connected. Humans don’t
always know all of the links in the web of life and we are sometimes surprised at the unintended
consequences of our actions. The links are real, and the consequences can sometimes be devastating.
For example, we only recently learned that nesting sea turtles play an important role in stabilizing beach
dune ecosystems, which protect coastal human communities from hurricanes and storm events. How?
Nesting turtles transport nutrients in the form of turtle eggs from the sea to nutrient-poor dune
ecosystems. This fertilizes dune vegetation which is the first line of defense for coastal communities from
storm surge. We now know that when turtle nesting populations go extinct, dune vegetation suffers and
the dunes are more prone to destruction from storm events. Another example is the endangered Giant
Leatherback turtle eats mostly jellyfish, and we know jellyfish blooms are increasing in many places
around the globe. Are they related to Leatherback population declines, and if so, how will that further
impact the marine ecosystem? Will we be forced to swim in seas full of jellyfish?
Those are only two reasons why we should all be concerned about protecting sea turtles. Another, of
course is just the sheer joy of watching a sea turtle lumber up a deserted beach to lay her eggs as her
kind has done for eons. It is like peering into the ancient past. And there are plenty of other selfish
reasons too. But, I would argue that sea turtles, like all living things, have a right to exist whether or not
they directly impact humans. To get back to your original question, no one can say for sure what would
happen if sea turtles went extinct, but I can say for sure that the Earth would be a less interesting, less
mysterious place without them. I sure hope future generations don’t blame ours for being the one that
drove these ancient, gentle and mysterious animals out of existence.
The Catch Conservation Fund: Why is Cocos Island such an important location for your research?
Todd Steiner: There are several reasons. It appears that Cocos may be an important foraging area for
juvenile and adult Pacific Green, also called “Black” turtles, and Hawksbills. We also know that
Leatherbacks migrate through the waters of Cocos Island National Park, and Olive Ridleys are also found
within the marine park boundaries. We know very little about the foraging areas of turtles anywhere in
the world, and the Cocos is proving to be a place where we can study this aspect of their life history in
order to better protect sea turtles throughout their complicated life spans.
The Catch Conservation Fund: What were the initial goals of the Cocos Island project, and were you
able to accomplish them?
Todd Steiner: We aim to understand the importance of the Cocos Island marine habitat as it relates to
the migratory paths of sharks and turtles. We are committed to using this data to push for better policies
that provide increased protection for these species throughout their range. We will be working to propose
protected migratory swim ways for these endangered species, and looking at non-invasive methods of
counting populations of sharks and turtles through photo-identification of individuals, possibly using hi-
tech “finger-printing” technology. The publicity our expeditions and research brings helps to discourage
poaching and pressures government officials to better protect this incredible place.
The Catch Conservation Fund: I read that you tagged several turtles with flipper tags, nine with
acoustic tags, and four with satellite tracking devices. Would you mind briefly describing these three
different tags and the information you are able to collect from each.
Todd Steiner: Flipper tags, the simplest and oldest tagging method, allow for permanently marking
individuals for future recognition. If divers at Cocos see the turtle regularly and report back to us, we
know the turtle is staying around the Cocos. If the turtle shows up on a beach somewhere in the world
and is seen, we can find out where this turtle has gone. If it dies in a driftnet or gets caught on a long
Todd Steiner (cont): line hook and the tag is returned to us with that information, we learn where the
turtle went and what its fate was.
Acoustic tags send out an individualized radio signal that is recorded every time the animal swims near
one of the receivers. We have receivers all around Cocos Island and are planning on placing them along
Costa Rica’s mainland. We are also collaborating with other researchers at Galapagos Islands, Ecuador,
and Malpelo Island, Colombia. If one of the turtles or sharks with acoustic tags swims by any of these
receivers, we get the data. We have already learned that hammerhead sharks are moving between all
three of these islands (Cocos, Galapagos and Malpelo) and thus we know that protection at any one spot
is not enough to protect these animals and that they will not be safe unless their migratory paths
between these islands are also protected.
Satellite tags are the most sophisticated (and most expensive) and also provide the most data. When the
turtle surfaces, a signal is sent to series of satellites orbiting the Earth, which calculates it’s the turtle’s
position in time. Thus we can literally follow these turtles daily, knowing where they are going and
learning the exact path they took.
The Catch Conservation Fund: I have been following the four turtles you tagged with satellite tracking
devices on your website. How will all of this information be used?
Todd Steiner: These devices will provide information about the life history of these animals, which we
will share with other scientists and the public through research papers, presentations, and articles in
newspapers, magazines and blogs like this. Ultimately, we aim to convince officials to create marine
protected areas for these endangered species.
The Catch Conservation Fund: I noticed that Hawksbill Georgina "fell off the grid" for a while, but the
story doesn't end there. Would you mind sharing with our readers what happened?
Todd Steiner: Unfortunately, the transmitter stopped operating after a few days and we were not sure
if it fell off and sank, or had just malfunctioned. Amazingly, a few weeks later Dr. Sylvia Earle, a National
Geographic Explorer in Residence, and one of my personal ocean heroes, exclaimed that she had just
seen a Hawksbill turtle with a satellite transmitter at Cocos Island on a Nat Geo blog. I saw the blog and
let her know that we had tagged the turtle at the Cocos just a few weeks earlier. The photo she took
confirmed that the tag had not fallen off. We’re actually hoping to use the information to convince the
tag company to replace that tag free of charge, as each satellite tag costs around $2,000. It costs
approximately an additional $2,500 per year for the use of satellite time. This stuff gets expensive. Funds
for satellite tags are a limiting factor for our research activities.
The Catch Conservation Fund: Do you think Georgina's chance meeting with that National
Geographic expedition will open the door for collaborative efforts between your groups going forward?
Todd Steiner: I sure hope so. We are eager to work with Dr. Earle, National Geographic and anyone
else who can help convince decision-makers to better protect Cocos Island by increasing the size of the
marine protected area around the island, and to create protected migratory swim ways for its
endangered inhabitants which spend parts of their lives there.
The Catch Conservation Fund: You mentioned cost being a prohibitive factor in your research, exactly
how are programs like the Cocos Island Shark and Sea Turtle Tagging Expedition funded?
Todd Steiner: Currently, this research receives no government or foundation support and is wholly
supported by the volunteer participants who come along to help, as well as through the gifts from our
members. We hope to grow support for an expanded program through funds from foundations and
responsible corporate funding sources.
The Catch Conservation Fund: Mr. Steiner, thank you for stopping by to answer all of our questions
this afternoon. We certainly wish you all the best with any future missions to Cocos Island.
Todd Steiner: It’s been a pleasure talking with you about these very important issues, and I hope your
readers get a lot out of this. You can find out more about STRP and our Cocos Island Program at
www.seaturtles.org. We have three more expeditions planned for 2010, and any of your interested
readers can sign-up there.
Thank you for reading our interview with Marine Investigator Todd Steiner. The Catch
Conservation Fund is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Your tax-deductible donation helps
us protect endangered sea turtles and sharks around the world.
Find out more about global threats to shark and sea turtle survival and what you can do to
help by visiting the following websites:
The Catch Conservation Fund ● 788 Holiday Road ● McCormick, SC 29835