HPA Sea Turtle Research Program turns 31

  • HPA students Sara Thiel and Ivy Tang carry a juvenile turtle with Laura Jim, associate director of the HPA Sea Turtle Research Program, to be weighed, measured and tagged in Puako last February. (COURTESY PHOTO/MARC RICE)

  • HPA Sea Turtle Research Program Director Marc Rice measures the straight carapace width of a juvenile green turtle with HPA students in Puako. Since 1987, program participants and NOAA scientists have been capturing, measuring, tagging and studying threatened Hawaiian green sea turtles. (COURTESY PHOTO/LAURA JIM)

WAIMEA — Those who love Hawaiian green sea turtles will be pleased to learn that they’re currently doing well and thriving.

Such is the summation of Marc Rice, a marine biologist who, for the past 31 years, has directed the Hawaii Preparatory Academy (HPA) Sea Turtle Research Program, and worked at the school for 47 years.

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“Hawaii’s turtles weren’t always doing well; in fact, in the ’70s and early ‘80s you didn’t hear much about them,” he said. “I was here for years before I even realized there were green turtles around because they were pretty much hunted out of existence. You hardly ever saw them.”

The situation began changing for the better in 1978, when the Hawaiian green sea turtle was listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The HPA Sea Turtle Research Program was created in 1987 through a collaborative partnership between the school and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA/NMFS). George Balazs, a NOAA senior sea turtle biologist who’s now retired, was the driving force behind the cooperative program.

The program’s first tagging trip took place in October 1987 when Balazs, Rice, David Gulko and 20 students traveled to Kiholo State Park Reserve along the Kohala Coast.

“We were out there for three days, had nets in the water 24 hours a day and caught seven turtles,” Rice recalled.

Tagging trips increased to two in 1988, three the next year and continually increased until they were making 15 to 20 trips per year. Twelve years ago they captured and tagged 92 turtles in one day without a net.

The team also started branching out along Hawaii Island’s west coast with trips to Puako, Mauna Lani Bay, Honaunau and Kahalu’u Bay.

While in the field, students mostly just tagged turtles but in later years started satellite tracking using sonic monitoring devices and time depth recorders to study behaviors of green turtles in their home environments.

“As technology improved, we went right along with it,” Rice said.

Hawaiian green sea turtles are unique and somewhat easier to manage because Hawaii is a self-contained management unit.

“We’re right out in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, so Hawaiian turtles don’t go anywhere but here,” Rice said.

By virtue of their genetic makeup and where they live, Hawaiian turtles are truly “Hawaiian,” he explained, meaning those that live here nest here, and those that hatch here come back here to live — which isn’t the case in most parts of the world.

Hawaiian turtles live to be about 70 years old, whereas the other six species live to about 50 or 60. They mature around 25 years of age and generally nest every three to five years. Each time they nest, they lay an average of three clutches of about 100 eggs. Only a small percentage of those that hatch survive to adulthood.

Hawaiian sea turtles don’t nest much on the main islands but travel to French Frigate Shoals, about 700 miles northwest of Hawaii Island. The number of nesting females has increased from about 50, on average, to more than 800 per year.

As the status for Hawaiian turtles has stabilized, the HPA Sea Turtle Research Program has expanded its activities beyond U.S. borders. Rice and HPA students have traveled throughout the North and South Pacific to assist with research in American Samoa, Australia, Japan, New Caledonia, Midway Atoll and Singapore.

In January, HPA joined colleagues in the Republic of Vanuatu to conduct satellite tagging of post-nesting hawksbill turtles. The gathering was part of a continuing project to assist in understanding the migratory behavior of sea turtles in other parts of the South Pacific Ocean.

“There are a lot of areas in the world where turtle populations have not recovered the way Hawaii’s green turtles have, so we thought we’d branch out a little with a goal of international outreach to help improve turtle conservation worldwide,” Rice said.

“Getting kids out into the field is an excellent way to enhance their learning, especially with respect to conservation and ethical environmental behavior,” he continued. “To me, that’s what the program is all about. While I do enjoy doing the research, the focus is the students … involving them, and letting them do the work.”

Rice is especially grateful for his employer’s support.

“I’m thankful HPA has supported us even though the program affects only 10 to 20 percent of the student body,” he said. “It’s not a big program, but HPA has dedicated a lot of resources to it because it’s unique. That’s been pretty amazing because most institutions — schools in particular — can’t or won’t do that.”

The other big positive has been the people.

“I’m grateful for the kids, and for George Balazs, of course, who has been key for it all because without him nothing would have happened,” Rice said. “I also enjoy the travel, students, getting to work in the field and I love the technology.”

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With respect to his beloved turtles Rice said, “We’ve got a pretty good idea, now, of what we need to do to maintain their population and keep them healthy. But it’s not just about conserving the turtles; we must also be mindful of the environment in which they live.

“The take-home message is that if you take care of the environment and leave the animals alone, they will take care of themselves.”