Saving marine life one student at a time

Selecting the primary school in the village of La Plaine as a pilot test site for our revamped Floating Classroom program was no coincidence. A large number of Dominica’s 70+ sea turtle nesting sites are in close proximity to this small village on the country’s east coast.

A leatherback sea turtle digs her nest on a Dominican beach while volunteers watch.

Sadly the village of La Plaine has a problem. Occasionally, a small percentage of its community members kill nesting leatherback sea turtles. This, despite the fact that poaching leatherbacks was first outlawed in Dominica in the 1930’s. We hope that Floating Classrooms can make a significant difference here -- through our marine life education program, we’re providing the information needed so that people understand the harsh consequences of killing an endangered species.

Reaching weights of 2,000 pounds or more, leatherbacks are the largest species of sea turtle. Evolutionarily speaking, leatherbacks are also the oldest line of sea turtle, having remained relatively unchanged for approximately 100 million years. The leatherback sea turtles nesting in the shadow of the La Plaine primary school are descendents of turtles that swam the oceans when dinosaurs still roamed our planet. Imagine that. Leatherback sea turtles have existed since prehistoric times, but they might not survive modern times. The actions of humans -- in nothing more than a blink on the evolutionary timescale -- are driving this ancient species toward extinction.

Leatherback sea turtles face global threats, which are complicated to solve and involve massive international conservation efforts. But, the biggest conservation gains can be made locally, right here in Dominica. Because there are so few leatherbacks left in the world today, every single individual and every single egg is vital to the species. And this is where the La Plaine primary school students come in.

The people who continue to poach nesting leatherback and their eggs are the friends, family and neighbors of our Floating Classroom students. If we can reach these children, we can influence their parents, their neighbors and their communities. Anyone who doubts the persuasiveness of a child need only talk with a parent. These kids and their passion could help save an entire species from extinction.

We’re already seeing results from our Floating Classroom students. They are telling their parents not to eat sea turtle meat and eggs. They are talking about the importance of recycling plastics and properly disposing of trash. They are helping with beach clean-ups.

Why do clean beaches and recycled plastics help leatherbacks? Marine debris, specifically plastic bags remain one of the biggest threats to these sea turtles. A plastic bag floating in the ocean looks an awful lot like a jellyfish -- leatherback sea turtles’ favorite food, jellyfish. This similarity means that leatherbacks often eat plastic, and many then die as a result. Beach clean-ups are one way to address this problem -- one recent student beach clean-up collected 20 bags of trash from just one beach.

A Floating Classrooms student holds her new reusable shopping bag.

However beach cleanups don’t address the root of the problem. Unless we stop the flow of plastic trash, debris will still end up in the ocean.Reducing the overall use of plastic is another way to help, and IFAW has provided every Floating Classroom student with a reusable shopping bag. It’s a little thing, but every little thing helps. Combined, the consequences can be huge.

These kids want to save the leatherback sea turtle, and we are doing everything we can to help them. After all, these well minded 4th and 5th grade students may be all that stands between the leatherback sea turtle and extinction.

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