Evaluating the importance of Marine Protected Areas for the conservation of hawksbill turtles Eretmochelys imbricata nesting in the Dominican Republic
Understanding spatial and temporal habitat-use patterns to protect both foraging and breeding grounds of species of concern is crucial for successful conservation. Saona Island in Del Este National Park (DENP), south-eastern Dominican Republic (DR), hosts the only major hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) nesting area in the DR (100 nests yr-1, SD = 8.4, range = 93-111), with the population having been critically reduced through hunting. We satellite tracked 9 female hawksbill turtles, and present analyses of their core-use areas with respect to Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in both their internesting and foraging areas. Kernel utilization distributions indicated that during the internesting period all turtles remained close to their nesting beaches in small home ranges in the territorial waters of the DR, mostly over the continental shelf (<200 m depth). Common core-use areas were located inside the DENP, and 82.7% of all locations were within the DENP. In foraging areas, only 23% of locations were inside MPAs, either in waters of the DR or in waters of the Bahamas, Nicaragua and Honduras. Our results highlight that the protected areas of the DR are vital for hawksbill conservation, and the enforcement of existing legislation governing protected areas in the country is crucial. The present study also corroborates that the waters off Nicaragua and Honduras are exceptionally important foraging areas for hawksbills in the Caribbean, showing the turtle’s vulnerability in these waters.