Turtle recovery: our work in the British Virgin Islands

By Amdeep Sanghera, our UKOT Conservation Officer

The pandemic has affected all aspects of our lives, and this includes our important marine conservation work. We’re finding new ways to adapt and adjust to the challenging situation.

Green turtle

Just earlier this year, we were delighted to receive a significant grant from the UK Government’s Darwin Plus initiative to work in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Leading on a project alongside local organisation the Association of Reef Keepers (ARK), with the Government of the Virgin Islands and the University of Exeter, the Sustaining Turtles, Environment, Economy and Livelihoods (STEEL) Project will support the recovery of turtle populations and key habitats including reefs and seagrass meadows in this Caribbean UK Overseas Territory.

By the time we’d received this news of our funding, the coronavirus pandemic was already sweeping across the globe, with the Caribbean islands also affected. The BVI closed its international borders on 23rd March, and went into a full one-month lockdown four days later. A spike in Covid cases in August saw the introduction of a further lockdown, with a total of 71 cases and unfortunately one death reported so far.

With BVI’s borders still closed, along with measures that place restrictions on public gatherings, we’ve had to delay aspects of our project including our engagement with communities to introduce the initiative. As we’ve shifted to virtual realms, we’ve been working closely with our BVI partners to launch this exciting project online and start connecting with communities in these fascinating islands.

STEEL pres

The online and broadcast launch brilliantly organised and run by our partners in the Government of the Virgin Islands, took place at the end of October, and saw ARK’s Dr. Shannon Gore present the aims of the STEEL project and what it would achieve in the next three years. As part of a panel of project partners, we also addressed community questions and concerns regarding the work, while discussing our tried-and-tested Community Voice Method (CVM) of engagement to work with BVI communities. There was a lively debate on the launch Facebook live pages about the merits of the BVI turtle fishery, and we look forward to exploring this more with CVM. We hope to develop new legislation recommendations and a conservation action plan to safeguard BVI’s turtle populations for future generations.

On the back of our successful UK Jellyfish ID quiz, we’ve also developed a light-hearted and fun turtle quiz where we can start understanding what people in the BVI know and think about turtles and their conservation in these islands. This information can help us in understanding any knowledge gaps that may exist, helping to influence our outreach efforts. Additionally, by implementing a similar quiz at the end of this three-year project, we’ll be able to track any shifts in perceptions and knowledge of BVI communities towards turtles, helping us to understand the impact we’re having.

Turtle quiz

As we enter another lockdown in England, we’re encouraged that we can still raise awareness of our work and the need for marine conservation in these challenging times. We can also be hopeful, as BVI’s efforts in stemming the pandemic means their international borders re-open to visitors at the beginning of December. On this note, we’re very much looking forward to building on these virtual events and starting our field work with BVI communities in a safe way, while working with our partners to build a better future for the island’s turtle populations.

We’d like to thank our STEEL project partners for their hard-work, understanding and patience during these trying times, including the Government of the Virgin Island’s Information Officer Nekita Turnbull who has played a critical role in virtually promoting our project. We also extend our sincere thanks to the Darwin Initiative who have also been very understanding during this period.