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Saipan sea turtles: An internationally-shared resource

Source: Tammy Mae Summers, CNMI Sea Turtle Program

Photos: Tammy Mae Summers

Sea turtles contribute to reef ecosystems and are iconic species of high cultural, traditional, often spiritual significance. In the Western Pacific, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) consists of 15 islands of the Mariana Archipelago (excluding Guam). The three largest and southernmost islands of CNMI are Saipan, Rota, and Tinian with the majority of the human population residing on Saipan.

Carolinian and Chamorro people of CNMI consider sea turtles to be an important cultural resource (1).  The CNMI Sea Turtle Program (STP) is working to monitor, protect, and raise public awareness through educational outreach to promote recovery.

Map of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Map of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Map source: www.intute.ac.uk/worldguid/html/981_map.html

Green and hawksbill turtles nest and use coastal foraging habitats of the CNMI (2-8) and are protected from harvest under CNMI local law and the U.S. Endangered Species Act (2,3). Approximately 10-20 green turtles may nest annually in the Marianas (2-5). Surveys undertaken between 1999 and 2004 to assess the near-shore population of sea turtles estimated that 1,000-2,000 green turtles may occur in near shore reef habitats of CNMI (5-8). 

Anecdotal information from residents suggest that nesting activity has decreased over time likely a result of direct harvest, coastal development, World War II impacts, and degradation of cultural traditions and practices that once likely sustainably managed marine resources (1-3).


Education and Outreach

“Magas” departing LaoLao Bay with a satellite transmitter.During the summer of 2011, three satellite tags were deployed on post-nesting green turtles in Saipan. Goals of this effort were to integrate sea turtles in educational activities, acquire greater understanding of their biology and ecology, and promote greater community awareness of conservation needs and migrations.  These are CNMI's first post-nesting satellite tagged turtles, resulting from a collaborative project of CNMI Department of Lands and Natural Resources (DLNR) -- Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) -- Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO) and Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC), and local community volunteer organizations.


Satellite Tracking Results

To date, Kumiko, tagged at Bird Island Marine Sanctuary has migrated to the Philippines, and is currently in Tagun Bay, Philippines. This particular turtle was named in memorial to a volunteer of the CNMI STP who passed away after a fight with cancer on the same evening this turtle emerged to nest. Philippine colleagues have been notified that Kumiko is in their waters and are encouraged to share this information widely.

2011 Post-nesting movement of green turtle, Kumiko, ID 22879


The second turtle, Magas (which translates to “boss” in the Chamorro language), was tagged at LaoLao Bay and named by Rota High School students. Magas’ transmitter has been transmitting for 75 days and she currently appears to be heading towards Japan. We await to see what foraging habitat(s) she selects, but most recent data indicate she is near Okinawa.

2011 Post-nesting movement of green turtle, Magas, ID 22891


Kagman High School Marine Biology Club students participate in satellite tag deployment.At Forbidden Island Sanctuary's Tank beach, students of Kagman High School Marine Biology Club observed and participated during satellite tag application of the third turtle they named Limwamway, or “beautiful” in the Carolinian language. All three turtles ended up laying more nests than expected, with Limwamway laying a total of nine nests! She has just begun her migration, and is still transmitting close to Saipan. Her most recent transmissions place her to the west of Saipan, similar to the initial trajectories of the other turtles. We will continue to send updates as information becomes available on all three green turtles.


2011 Post-nesting movement of green turtle, Limwamway, ID 25313

The July 2011 issue of Hafadai magazine featured Saipan sea turtle satellite tracking activities.

Other CNMI community volunteer organizations such as the Turtle Advocate and Guardian Society (TAGS) and elementary schools have participated in events such as nest inventories, morning, and night nesting surveys.

These outreach efforts have been coupled with increased school visits by STP staff, press releases, newspaper and magazine articles, as well as newscasts that have helped to inform and raise public awareness of both the CNMI STP and this sea turtle tracking project.




Mural promoting coral reef conservation.


A mural promoting coral reef conservation was completed June 2011 coordinated by the CNMI Coastal Resources Management program. The mural, located adjacent to the American Memorial Park, faces one of Saipan's busiest intersections at Middle Road and Navy Hill, prominently features a sea turtle and compliments STP awareness raising efforts.



A Shared International Resource

Mini volunteer in awe of a turtle hatchling. Sea turtles are cultural ambassadors, connecting people and nations of the Pacific. This collaborative satellite tagging project has not only increased our understanding of CNMI sea turtle biology and migration and engaged local communities and conservation partners, but has also stretched across ocean basins connecting the Pacific Islands with the IOSEA.

Similar migrations were observed in 2000 and 2007 when post-nesting green turtles satellite tagged in Guam also traveled to Japan and Philippines (9). Other projects and studies utilizing telemetry and genetics research in the Western Pacific (Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Republic of Palau) have also documented similar trans-regional migrations and connectivity between the Pacific and IOSEA regions (10-17).


Sea turtle information provided to students of Oleai Elementary School (Home of the Turtle).As next steps, the CNMI STP looks forward to working with international agencies and local conservation organizations of Japan and Philippines to raise awareness and increase protection of green turtles not only on nesting beaches but in foraging grounds. This is the most challenging component of the project as we envision outreach not ending when tracks do. Once females settle in their foraging habitats we will engage with our international colleagues to coordinate outreach activities to connect students and communities in cultural exchange of information. Through such collaboration we aim to raise awareness and generate support for continued conservation and management benefiting this shared international resource.


The CNMI Sea Turtle Program

The CNMI DLNR Sea Turtle Program (STP) has monitored nesting activity in Saipan since 1999 (3), and has undertaken surveys of near-shore waters . In 2004, the STP began receiving funding support by NMFS PIRO to implement intensive beach and near shore monitoring activities. Soon thereafter, the STP integrated experts in sea turtle biology and indigenous hand-capture techniques (18) to build research and conservation capacity.  This has resulted in 200 green and 14 hawksbill turtles captured in foraging habitats. The animals were tagged, measured, and sampled for genetic DNA analysis, thereby  contributing to greater understanding of regional connectivity and aiding NMFS and DLNR in management. Since 2009, increased efforts and attention have been applied to expand education, outreach and awareness-raising initiatives in an effort to reduce harvest which is considered the greatest threat to sea turtle recovery in the CNMI.

Students of Whispering Palms School campout education outreach event.


For additional information or to contact the CNMI STP, please contact Tammy Summers: tammymaesummers@yahoo.com

Irene Kelly, NMFS PIRO sea turtle recovery coordinator, is helping to coordinate international outreach efforts and can be reached at Irene.Kelly@noaa.gov.

Please visit www.ihaggan.com and checkout the Blog for additional photos and other project information such as press releases.

References cited:

  1. McCoy, M.A. 1997. The traditional and ceremonial uses of the green turtle in the CNMI. A report prepared for the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Council and University of Hawaii, Sea Grant College Program.
  2. NMFS and USFWS. 1998. Recovery Plan for U.S. Pacific Populations of the Green Turtle. 84pp.
  3. Maison, K.A, Kinan Kelly, I. and K.P. Frutchey. 2010. Green turtle nesting sites and sea turtle legislation throughout Oceania. NOAA Tech Memo NMFS-F/SPO-110. http://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/tm/110.pdf.
  4. Pultz, S., O’Daniel, D., Krueger, S., McSharry, H., G.H. Balazs. 1999. Marine Turtle Survey on Tinian, Mariana Islands. Micronesica 31(2):85-94.
  5. Kolinski, S.P., Parker, D.M., Ilo, L.I. and J.K. Ruak. 2001. An assessment of sea turtles and their marine and terrestrial habitats at Saipan, CNMI. Micronesica 34(1):55-72.
  6. Kolinski, S.P., Ilo, L.I. and J.M. Manglona. 2004. Green turtles and their marine habitats at Tinian and Aguijan, with projections on resident turtle demographics in the southern arc of the CNMI. Micronesica 37:95-116.
  7. Kolinski, S.P., Hoeke, R.K., Holzwarth, S.R. and P.S. Vroom. 2005. Sea turtle abundance at isolated reefs of the Mariana Archipelago. Micronesica 37(2): 287-296.
  8. Kolinski, S.P., Hoeke, R.K., Holzwarth, S.R., Ilo, L.I., Cox, E.F., O’Conner, R.C., and P.S. Vroom. 2006. Nearshore Distribution and an Abundance Estimate for Green Sea Turtles, Chelonia mydas, at Rota Island, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Pacific Science. Vol. 60 (4):509–522.
  9. Guam Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources (DAWR). 2004 and 2009. Guam Sea Turtle Recovery Project. Final progress reports to NMFS PIRO.
  10. Peter Dutton, SWFSC, personal communication.
  11. Cheng et al. 2008. Comparison of the genetics and nesting ecology of two green turtle rookeries. Journal of Zoology 276(4): 375-384.
  12. Kolinski, S.P. 1995. Migrations of the green turtle, Chelonia mydas, breeding in Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia. Micronesica. 28(1): 1-8.
  13. Cruce, J. and S.P. Kolinski et al. 2011 in prep. Identifying migration-based connectivity via satellite telemetry of twelve post-nesting green turtles from Gielop Island, Federated States of Micronesia.
  14. Kuen, C.Y. 2011. Genetics investigation of green turtle carcasses from the 2007 poaching incidence in Sabah waters. Presented at: 31st Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation, San Diego, California. April 10-16, 2011.
  15. Dethmers, K.E.M. et al. 2006. The genetic structure of Australasian green turtles (Chelonia mydas): Exploring the geographical scale of genetic exchange. Molecular Ecology. doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2006.03070x
  16. NMFS PIRO and PIFSC. 2007 unpublished. Satellite tracks of five post-nesting green turtles from Erikub Atoll, Republic of Marshall Islands.
  17. Palau Bureau of Marine Resources (BMR) 2007. Linking Micronesia and Southeast Asia: Palau Sea Turtle Satellite Tracking and Flipper Tag Returns. Marine Turtle Newsletter 118:9-11.
  18. Summers, T.M. and I. Kinan Kelly. 2010. Jessy the Flying Yapese. In: The State of the Worlds Turtles, Volume 4: 22-23.

All sea turtle research activities described herein are authorized under federal NMFS permit 1556-02 and USFWS cooperative agreement TE017352-15.


UNEP © IOSEA Marine Turtle MoU Secretariat, c/o UNEP Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific,
United Nations Building, Rajdamnern Nok Avenue, Bangkok, 10200, Thailand
Tel: + (662) 288 1471 ; Fax: + (662) 288 3041 / 288 1029; E-mail: IOSEA Secretariat
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