Turtles need human help to survive human threats

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This week:

  • What you can do to help save the turtles
  • A message about invasive species: Eat me
  • Fish waste is getting transformed into local fertilizer for Yellowknife gardens

Turtles need human help to avoid human-caused extinction

A turtle with a yellow chin sits on the white line at the edge of the road, facing toward the roadway.
Road mortality is a threat for many turtles, including the endangered Blanding’s turtle. (Jeff Dankert/The Winona Daily News/The Associated Press)

It’s turtle nesting season and, across Canada, from B.C. to Nova Scotia, volunteers with conservation groups are busy building turtle nest protectors and rescuing and incubating turtle eggs — even in urban areas like Toronto.

Some are even going to extraordinary lengths to care for thousands of injured turtles. Last year, the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, in Peterborough, Ont., admitted 2,000 injured turtles to its hospital and also cared for 7,000 eggs, many from those injured mother turtles, said Sue Carstairs, the group’s executive and medical director.

“There’s so many projects out there and it seems like a lot going on,” Carstairs said. But compared to the challenges that turtles face, she says “it’s still just a drop in the barrel, really.”

Almost all turtles in Canada are federally listed as species at risk (the only exception is the Prairie/Western Boreal-Canadian Shield population of the Western painted turtle) and a number are listed as endangered or extirpated. And turtles are in trouble worldwide — about half the world’s species are threatened with extinction, a 2021 study found.

Globally and nationally, the biggest threat to turtles is habitat loss, as their wetlands are drained or filled to build roads and buildings or dried up by climate change. They’re also captured for food or pets — something that Carstairs says “does occur close to home, sadly” and has decimated populations of wood turtles and spotted turtles.

Many are also run over by cars, especially when they’re forced to travel farther to find good nesting sites. Their nests are also decimated by predators such as raccoons, which have outsized populations thanks to household garbage for them to feed on.

But while people are driving turtles to extinction, Carstairs says we can also hold off that extinction.

“Human intervention does make a difference, definitely,” she said.

A 2021 modelling study she conducted with Trent University researchers found that when their injury rate is high, helping turtles recover can help stabilize declining populations when combined with other conservation measures.

Efforts such as caring for injured animals or captive breeding have been controversial, as there has been limited evidence of their effectiveness and they require a lot of money ��— the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre has an annual budget of $1 million and is currently raising money for ongoing construction of a new facility, including a bigger turtle hospital, expected to open this summer. 

Baby turtle with a grid in the background
This baby Blanding’s turtle was hatched in the Toronto Zoo’s ‘head-starting’ program. It will be raised to the size of a baked potato before release. (Peter Turek/CBC)

Those other measures include “head-starting” programs like the one for endangered Blanding’s turtles at the Toronto Zoo. Turtle eggs removed from danger zones such as construction sites and farm fields are hatched in incubators. The hatchlings’ shells are soft and about the size of the loonie when they break out of their eggs.

Brianna Sullivan, a keeper in the zoo’s Americas Pavilion, where the hatchlings are on display, said at that stage, they’re often eaten by raccoons and dogs. The zoo grows them up to about the size of a baked potato before release. “We want to increase the chance they will survive in the wild … and that we hope will increase our wild Blanding’s population.”

Both Carstairs and Sullivan said there are many things the public can do to help, such as:

  • Watch out for turtles when driving and help them cross roads.
  • Report turtle sightings (you can do that with citizen science apps like iNaturalist) so their habitat and travel routes are more likely to get protection.
  • Watch out for nesting sites, don’t disturb them and install nest protectors to keep predators out.

Carstairs said all these interventions “buy time” to implement more permanent fixes like protecting habitat and turtle travel routes or crossings. 

“There’s all kinds of small things that people can do,” Carstairs said. “You know, just being aware is huge.”

Emily Chung

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The Big Picture: A message about invasive species

A poster with dandelions and the words "eat me"
(Echo Railton)

Looking for some fresh salad greens this spring? It turns out you can find multiple kinds in your own lawn, some of which are invasive species that crowd out native plants. A few years ago, Toronto artist Echo Railton created a poster urging people to eat garlic mustard, a forest invader that produces herbicides preventing the growth of native plants. She created an “eat me” poster and hung it near a patch of garlic mustard in Toronto’s east end. Unfortunately, the original poster was stolen, but she made the design available from her website, and it has been posted in many Canadian cities since. This year, Railton created a new poster targeting dandelions. Compared to garlic mustard, there is more debate about whether dandelion’s benefits outweigh its harms to native species. But the plant is also extremely common and versatile — P.E.I. has a whole festival for food and drinks that can be made from it. Railton recommends a number of recipes for those who prefer sweets to salads. “My kids love a dandelion flower lemon bar,” she said. Railton is making both the garlic mustard and dandelion posters available on her website for anyone to print.

Emily Chung

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

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Composted fish waste makes local fertilizer available to Yellowknife gardeners

A woman in a red long sleeve grins at the camera. She's leaning against a big black cylinder with an open hatch, inside you can see a pile of fish guts on top of brown grain.
Karine Gignac leans against the in-vessel composter she’s using to turn fish waste, spent grains and wood chips into nutrient-rich compost for Yellowknife gardeners. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Stéphanie Vaillancourt, who runs a commercial fishing business in Yellowknife, scrapes fish guts from her cutting board into a bin at her trailer in Old Town.  

“Got lots of little eyes looking at us,” the Fish on the Bay founder said, peering inside at the bits of whitefish, cod and trout. 

Up until recently, she would return those unwanted parts to Great Slave Lake. That meant hauling the bins back out by boat or snowmobile, dumping them on the ice or in the water, and cleaning up after. 

“It’s a bit of a pain,” she said. 

Now a better solution is taking shape.

Karine Gignac, who started helping fillet Vaillancourt’s catch early last year, quickly saw an opportunity to turn those fish heads, spines, scales and skin into compost for peoples’ gardens.  

“We don’t have really good soil or soil amendments [in Yellowknife],” she explained. “Everything is imported from [the] South, and I just thought it would be a great way to actually produce something that is made from local ingredient[s].”

Nearly a year and a half later, just as gardening season ramps up, Gignac is on the verge of selling fish compost in Yellowknife. It’s an idea into which she’s poured countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars so far.  

A key component of Gignac’s business, Net Composting Solutions, is a huge cylindrical composter tucked inside a building in Yellowknife’s Kam Lake industrial area. 

It’s about 10 metres long and a metre and half wide, with a hatch on top where the ingredients go: scraps from commercial operators Fish on the Bay and N.W.T. Fish, spent grain from N.W.T. Brewing, and wood chips. Gignac said people have told her the composter resembles the locomotive of a train. 

The contraption cost $75,000 — 10 per cent covered by territorial funding — and Gignac said it’s worth it. Other methods of composting take more time and space, she said, but the in-vessel method will work year-round and can make compost in a matter of days from a fine-tuned recipe.

The composter creates a controlled environment, Gignac said, and she’s able to manage the heat and moisture inside. She also sets the daily number of rotations, which slowly pushes the material from one end to the other. 

I’m super happy with how it looks,” Gignac said, inspecting a handful of the product that had tumbled out of the open end. “Right now it’s very steamy, it’s hot, it’s a good dark brown colour. I’m thinking of my tomatoes right now — they’re going to love this.” 

Gignac said the compost needs to cure, or “calm down,” for a few weeks after its produced. She’s also waiting for test results to see what kind of nutrients the compost contains, which will help the more fastidious gardeners figure out how to use it. 

France Benoit, the owner and operator of La Refuge Farm in Yellowknife, said the new product appeals to her because it’ll be produced locally and will be available year round. 

For more than a decade, Benoit has coordinated an annual shipment of chicken manure from Hay River, N.W.T., to fertilize the sprawling vegetable gardens that are integral to her livelihood. Other Yellowknifers have been able to order too. But this year, she’s making the switch to fish. 

“I always try to make the best environmental choice,” she said. 

“It’s a very peaty soil that we have, so it does need nutrients … I’m really looking forward to using something local.”

In the future, Gignac envisions playing with different compost recipes, processing other animal carcasses, and extracting gases from the composting process for electricity generation. She also wants to try using compost to remediate soil. A ventilation system to help with odour is also in the cards.

Gignac said the journey has taken a lot of effort so far, and it doesn’t come without challenges and risk. But she said it’s heartening to have a long list of Yellowknife gardeners signed up for her first batch of fish compost.

“Seeing the excitement about what’s coming is very encouraging,” she said.

Liny Lamberink 

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Editors: Emily Chung and Hannah Hoag | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


Posted in CBC