For Barbara Schroeder, protecting sea turtles is not just a job, but a passion.
As national sea turtle coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Schroeder works on the conservation and recovery of sea turtles, trying to improve the survival chances of a marine species that has been in existence since dinosaur days and that serves as a barometer of the health of the world’s oceans.
The job is challenging since their habitat extends from beaches to the deep ocean as they grow from a hatchling that can be held in one hand to an animal large enough to cover a desk. And because they live in the open ocean and travel long distances, Schroeder collaborates with conservation groups and individuals around the world who research and study them.
“Conservation of sea turtles is a daunting task. It can’t be done by one person,” said Schroeder. “We have to work with so many nations these turtles travel to and live part of their lives in.”
And the stakes are high. When a species dies out, problems may not be apparent immediately, but if problems arise from imbalance in the ecosystem, there’s no turning back time.
“We cannot recreate a destroyed ecosystem or create species that have been driven to extinction,” she said.
Schroeder works with a five-person team charged with protecting these marine creatures, but NOAA also is responsible for managing the fisheries that create one of the primary threats to the turtles—fishing gear.
Sea turtles get caught as bycatch—the term used for the incidental fish or other marine species that accidentally get swept up in nets. Sea turtles must surface to breathe and they drown when caught in underwater nets.
“Ideally, there are solutions that allow fishing activities to continue, such as turtle extruder devices that allow turtles to escape from trawl nets,” Schroeder said. “The challenge is ensuring that solutions are implemented and enforced.”
Schroeder faces enormous pressures, said Earl Possardt, an international marine turtle program coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“She’s in a really hot seat,” he said. “She has to be a strong advocate for sea turtle conservation in the face of countervailing pressures.”
Protecting endangered species is often controversial since their conservation may affect the financial position of landowners or industries and halt activities in certain areas. Some people might ask, “What good are they?” but it is a question people could ask about any species, according to Schroeder.
“The answer is the same for all species,” she said. “We are all interconnected and reliant on the whole.”
Implementing solutions can be a slow process, according to Schroeder, who reaches out to experts and others who can help prevent harm to the sea turtles. After large-scale deaths of sea turtles in a particular fishery, she seeks to take steps to alter harmful practices.
Schroeder also develops and implements long-term surveys for monitoring sea turtle population trends and studying the creatures in their foraging habitats. She relies on satellite telemetry to investigate how sea turtles migrate to reproduce, a method that involves attaching tracking equipment to the turtles’ shells.
Another significant threat to sea turtles’ survival is coastal development on their nesting beaches. The large, slow creatures come ashore on sandy beaches to construct their nests and lay their eggs, and development impinges on this habitat. And, while on the beach, they are vulnerable to being hit by motorized vehicles.
But the jurisdiction of NOAA ends at the beach, at which point the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes over authority. That split jurisdiction requires additional coordination, Schroeder concedes, but she views it as more of an opportunity where the two agencies can bring the resources and expertise to bear.
Schroeder believes there is overwhelming public support for protecting sea turtles, and she values doing her part.
“What motivates me every day is hoping that the work I do, and have been doing, will help to conserve turtles for generations to come.”
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.