MTV Damaged Sea Turtle Beach in Tobago

Forest Knolls, California – MTV’s shooting of its reality TV show ‘The Gauntlet’ on Turtle Beach in Tobago (of Trinidad & Tobago) caused massive damage to a critical nesting beach for critically endangered leatherback sea turtles. The shoot, which wrapped up earlier this month, continued with little concern for the nesting sea turtles despite requests by from a local conservation group to relocate. Heavy equipment, the presence of about 90 film crew and the removal of sand blocked numerous turtles from nesting and destroyed an estimated 8 nests containing approximately 400 eggs. Numerous other eggs are now buried beneath densely compacted sand without any hope for escape for the hatchlings. The leatherback is considered critically endangered in the Atlantic by the World Conservation Union which publishes the Red List of endangered species.

“Our input was sought only after the site had already been chosen by MTV and set assembly had already begun”, said SOS Turtles Tobago vice president, Tanya Clovis. Save Our Sea Turtles (SOS) Tobago is a small voluntary organization. The set was only later moved back a few feet but it still disrupted turtle nesting.

According to local news reports, after the nearby river flooded some of the set, the local government responded to requests by MTV by sending in a backhoe on Saturday June 4 to open a channel to the sea. As a result, six nests directly surrounding the site of the man-made trench were destroyed. Large piles of sand have been formed around the beach burying newly hatched sea turtles alive when they will attempt to emerge from their nests in a few weeks.

‘Turtle Beach’, located on Courland Bay on the island of Tobago, is the island’s most famous and highest density site for the leatherback turtle and as well as hawksbill and green turtles. A total of 275 nests have been recorded for Courland Bay in 2005 according to the non-governmental organization Save Our Sea Turtles (SOS) Tobago. Eight of these nests are situated at the estuary where the MTV set is located. Foot traffic from the more than 90 member cast and crew compacts the sand carefully drizzled onto the eggs by the laying female, preventing hatchlings from reaching the surface.

“The only ones really running the Gauntlet are critically endangered leatherback sea turtles. MTV and its producer Bunim/Murray Productions ignored repeated requests to resolve this problem by moving to one of many nearby beaches not used by sea turtles,” said Robert Ovetz, PhD, Save the Leatherback Campaign Coordinator with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, an NGO based in California.

SOS Tobago received little support for a proposal to relocate the event to another beach. Instead, MTV merely offered to have their crew don SOS t-shirts.

“MTV needs to do more than wear sea turtle t-shirts. Endangered sea turtles are more than a fashion statement. We are calling for MTV to contribute to efforts to repair the damage they caused to the beach, contribute to ongoing sea turtle conservation efforts and negotiate a code of conduct that can be model for Hollywood,” added Ovetz.

SOS reports that numerous nests are nearing their hatch date and new nests are still being laid alongside the equipment. At least one Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) has already been deterred from nesting in the area upon encountering the structure. Disturbed turtles often return to the sea without laying their eggs or go elsewhere to lonely, unpatroled bays where they succumb to poaching.

Ironically, Tobago hosted the 7th Annual Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development less than two months ago.

Leatherback populations have declined more quickly than any other species of large vertebrate in modern history. In 1980, it is estimated that there were 115,000 adult female leatherbacks, but by 1990 this was reduced to about 25,000. Numerous threats imperil this critically endangered species, including habitat destruction, poaching of eggs, killing of nesting females, and accidental drowning in fishing gear. The leatherback nests mostly in developing countries where conservation usually faces a trade-off with development costs dues to limited funds.

The ‘Survivor’- like series, created by the California based Bunim/Murray Productions, pits contestants against each other in physical competitions over an obstacle course modeled after a beached galleon specifically constructed on the beach for the occasion. The ‘shipwrecked’ galleon remained on the beach for a month during the peak nesting season of the critically endangered species. The structure covered an area of beach about 150 square feet and has been constructed over egg-laying spots during the most important breeding month of the year. Photographs of the set are available.

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The Sea Turtle Restoration Project is a California-based marine conservation organization that works to protect sea turtles and other marine species in the United States and in countries around the world. For more information about sea turtles and the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, please visit: www.seaturtles.org and www.savetheleatherback.com

SOS Tobago is a small, non-profit community based organization of local and visiting volunteers. We work to preserve sea turtles and their coastal and marine habitats in Tobago. We conduct public awareness interactive lectures and field trips with school children, youth groups, tour guides, villagers and beachfront workers to encourage the development of empowered, environmentally conscious individuals and communities in Tobago. We do night patrols on key index beaches (Turtle Beach is our #1 beach with the highest density of nests) throughout the nesting season. We also collaborate with divers and fishers year-round to collect data on the local sea turtle population.

Contacts: Tanya Clovis (868) 639-0026 or (868) 762-5542 (cell)
Email: info@sos-tobago.org
Wendy Herron (868) 639-9669 or (239) 765-0619 (USA)
Contacts: Tanya Clovis (868) 639-0026 or (868) 762-5542 (cell)
Email: wherron@tstt.net.tt (Tobago) or wherron@comcast.net (USA)
Email: info@sos-tobago.org

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