KINGSTON, Jamaica – Authorities in Trinidad and Tobago said Wednesday they regret that heavy machinery may have crushed leatherback eggs or hatchlings on a section of a prime nesting beach but stressed the work was crucial to redirect a meandering river that was threatening to erode bigger nesting areas for the endangered sea turtle.
Shamshad Mohammed, drainage director for Trinidad's Environment and Water Resources Ministry, insisted the nesting areas on Grand Riviere beach where heavy excavators shifted sand was waterlogged and 80 percent of the eggs were already destroyed.
"We truly regret the slaughter of these magnificent sea creatures," Mohammed said in a government statement issued Wednesday.
The director of the local Turtle Village Trust, Allan Bachan, said the area where machinery was used was determined to be the best place to move sand on the 1-kilometer beach "in order to save the remaining 97.9 percent of the eggs, which is estimated to be over a million eggs."
Witnesses in Trinidad's tiny coastal town of Grand Riviere, where locals depend on ecotourism for their livelihoods, claim they saw leatherback eggs and healthy hatchlings wantonly crushed by a heavy machinery operator over the weekend as crews redirected a shifting river that was eroding nesting sites and threatening a hotel where tourists stay to catch a glimpse of a tiny leatherback hatchling or a massive adult.
Local residents said they managed to rescue hundreds of tiny hatchlings dredged up by the machinery, but others were injured and eventually devoured by vultures and dogs on the beach, where experts say roughly 3,500 nesting females deposit over 200,000 eggs a year.
Diego F. Amorocho, species program coordinator with the World Wildlife Fund's Caribbean and Latin American programs, said even if 2,000 eggs were lost during the weekend operation in Grand Riviere it would represent only about 1 percent of the total production for the northern Trinidadian beach.
"Even though this is a terribly situation, fortunately it does not represent a significant threat to the stability of the leatherback turtle colony in Trinidad. Nonetheless, local authorities in Trinidad should take the necessary measures to avoid such a tragedy from happening again," Amorocho said in an email.
Leatherback sea turtles have existed since prehistoric times, but are endangered today. Only a small fraction of hatchlings survive and even fewer go on to reach adulthood and reproduce.
Italian hotelier Piero Guerrini, whose Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel had been threatened by the shifting river, which began meandering closer to his business in December, has said the work redirecting the waterway was "done too late and it was done in the wrong way." He and other local stakeholders said they had pressed the government for months to intervene.
Government officials have not explained why it took so long to organize the much-needed intervention, which came around the peak of hatching season.
Marc de Verteuil, of the Papa Bois Conservation Organization in Trinidad, said the Grande Riviere River had eroded some of the dense nesting areas on the beach before the weekend, but the government work crews made a bad situation worse. His group has called for an investigation into the matter, claiming the work crews blatantly failed to follow protocol.
The leader of Trinidad's Environment and Water Resources ministry said Wednesday that officials "regret that any killing of eggs or hatchlings has taken place."