Marine Turtle Research Program

Green sea turtle.
Green sea turtle.

The Marine Turtle Research Program (MTRP) was established in the 1970s in response to new mandates for NMFS to support the goals of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Following decades of over-exploitation and declining abundance, sea turtles around the world were classified in 1978 as threatened or endangered and received protection under the ESA. From its beginning, the MTRP has strived to provide a scientific foundation to support the recovery and sustained conservation of sea turtle populations in Hawaii and other U.S.-affiliated islands in the Pacific Ocean, and to assist Pacific island and Pacific Rim nations in similar endeavors.

Much of the MTRP research is directed toward the green turtle (Chelonia mydas), or honu, the most common sea turtle in Hawaii. Green turtles can frequently be seen feeding on marine plants in shallow coastal waters throughout the islands. Though green turtles in Hawaii were severely depleted when our studies began in the 1970s, monitoring data collected subsequently by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and MTRP have shown encouraging signs of recovery by the population. Other research by MTRP has been directed at populations of other protected sea turtle species occurring in the North Pacific: loggerheads, olive ridleys, leatherbacks and hawksbills.

Guided by recovery plans prepared in collaboration with the FWS for each turtle species, MTRP conducts research specifically designed to inform management decisions by government agencies responsible for sea turtle conservation. On-going, long-term monitoring surveys and other studies by MTRP and collaborating research partners have generated valuable collections of biological and ecological information directly contributing to better understanding of sea turtle natural history and ecology, natural and anthropogenic impediments to recovery, and the dynamics and status of sea turtle populations in Hawaii, other Pacific islands, and around the Pacific Rim. MTRP researchers work closely with turtle scientists in other NOAA Fisheries offices, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and in foreign agencies and universities around the Pacific Rim. Within the Center, we cooperate regularly with our colleagues in the newer Marine Turtle Assessment Program (MTAP) on several projects of mutual interest.

The MTRP is a recognized leader in sea turtle research arenas based on a record of multi-national scientific cooperation and peer-reviewed publications.

Research Priorities

Research by the Marine Turtle Research Program covers a broad range of subjects:

  • Turtle life history and ecology - Investigations of the biology, life history, and ecology of sea turtles in their benthic and oceanic marine habitats and on nesting beaches, including studies of foraging habits, development, growth, and maturation.
    [develop topical pages on turtle life history, biology and ecology]
  • Pelagic ecology and oceanic migrations - Studies of movements of satellite-tagged loggerhead and olive ridley turtles in the open ocean to reveal migration patterns, define pelagic foraging habitat, and help in the development of strategies to reduce the frequency of fishery-turtle interactions and related turtle mortality.
    [develop topical pages on oceanic distribution and ecology; describe collaborations]
  • Nearshore ecology and habitat - Surveys in nearshore foraging and resting habitats to provide information on turtle life history, diet, abundance, and more.
  • Population monitoring - Periodic surveys at Hawaiian green turtle nesting beaches and in foraging areas to establish long term indices of abundance.
    [develop topical page on green turtle nesting and time-series of nester estimates at East Island; include research on remote monitoring via digital cameras]
  • Population dynamics - Collaborative analysis of long-term Hawaiian green turtle data collections to estimate population parameters and support the development of simulation models for use in population assessment.
    [develop topical page on Hawaii green turtle population dynamics; e.g., Balazs, Chaloupka, et al. work on age and growth, survival, simulation models, etc.]
  • Disease and health - Collection and collaborative analysis of health assessment data with focus on fibropapilloma disease complex to determine causes, containment measures, impacts to Hawaiian green turtles.
    [develop topical page on turtle health and disease and published studies of Work, Balazs et al.]
  • Rescue and rehabilitation - Monitoring of stranded sea turtles, rehabilitation and release of stranded turtles, and collection of long-term data on causes of stranding.
    [develop page on stranding work: purpose and scientific outputs]

Additional Activities

The MTRP staff is also engaged in various non-research activities:

  • Observer training - MTRP provides expert training of NMFS observers deployed on U.S.-permitted pelagic longline vessels to monitor interactions with sea turtles and other protected species.
  • Capacity building - MTRP establishes ties with marine turtle scientists throughout the Pacific islands and around the Pacific Rim to foster collaborative research, exchange of data and information, and capacity building.
  • Capacity building - MTRP makes marine turtle research accessible to students, educators and the general public through participation in outreach events.
    [develop page or link to Center outreach pages]