An update on the Haiti Ocean Project
By Brianna Forte
Editor’s Note: The Sea Turtle Preservation Society first was introduced to Jamie Aquino and her nonprofit organization, Haiti Ocean Project, more than two years ago. Aquino was a guest speaker at a monthly meeting, and STPS has kept in touch and followed her organization’s work since that time. Aquino will be the guest speaker at February’s virtual monthly meeting at 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 4. The event is free and open to the public, but participants must register on the STPS website to receive login information. In conjunction with her presentation, STPS will collect needed items for the organization. Please see below for details.
Haiti Ocean Project’s founder and president, Jamie Aquino, has been working tirelessly to improve her nonprofit organization and help wildlife in Haiti over the past year, and STPS was able to catch up with her while she was stateside.
Although Aquino grew up forming a love for the ocean in Florida, she never thought marine conservation was going to be her career. Aquino was formerly a high school English and journalism teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and became involved in conservation when her students ran a successful campaign helping the wild dolphins and manatees in the area.
“I had some Haitian students in the classroom, who said to me that we should focus on Haiti because it’s a country where there is no real protection for the ocean,” Aquino said.
After traveling to Haiti for the first time and learning about the country and its culture, Aquino understood that marine education was not emphasized within Haiti.
“I felt like there was a gap missing with the lack of marine education. It’s something I’m interested in. I found the right kids. I saw a lot of species in the ocean. So that’s kind of how it started,” Aquino explained.
The Haiti Ocean Project was founded in 2007 and is based out of Petite Rivière de Nippes, in the most southwestern region of Haiti. Originally the organization was named the Haiti Marine Mammal Project, as Aquino thought the easiest way for the kids and the community to understand the importance of the ocean was through connecting with local marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales.
The focus of the organization changed as Aquino noticed there was an imbalance within Haiti’s ecosystem. She realized “the fishermen were killing a lot of sea turtles and a lot of sharks, so we noticed that if we don’t focus on the bigger picture, then we’re not really doing our job.”
The species that are now emphasized by the Haiti Ocean Project are referred to as high profile marine life and include marine mammals, sea turtles, sharks, and stingrays. Aquino explained that, “our priority is to educate the youth, the fishermen, and the communities about the important species in the ocean and about their ecosystem, and protect these key species which we feel have the best potential for ecotourism.”
According to the Haiti Ocean Project website, since its founding in 2007, the Haiti Ocean Project has helped save 86 sea turtles, 88 sharks, and has accrued 15 official team members.
Aquino said that nearly everyone involved in the Haiti Ocean Project is from the village where the conservation center is located. The people involved include about 100 youth in different capacities, about 100 local fishermen, and outside scientific advisors and marine experts which include OceanX, le Cape Eleuthera Institute, the network of sea turtle conservation WIDECAST, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium, and Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.
Aquino attributes the Haiti Ocean Project’s success to working and communicating with the locals to understand and adapt the message of marine education to the local culture.
“The real key was finding locals on the ground that were committed to wanting to help,” Aquino said. “I went in and said, look this is an idea that I have, I want to share with you. And let’s work together. And so everything that was me became we.”
The main focus of the Haiti Ocean Project is educational outreach in Petite Rivière de Nippes and the surrounding fishing villages. The Haiti Ocean Project currently has a marine conservation center based out of a converted house they are renting.
“The Haiti Ocean Project is like its own club so to speak. It’s a place for the kids to congregate, develop common interests, involve themselves in their community, and work together,” Aquino said.
The educational outreach includes beach cleanups, classroom visits, and workshops. The Haiti Ocean Project just got a grant from Adobe, and the children in Petite Rivière de Nippes are working to make a mini-documentary about the ocean.
“We get the kids involved in things like this project, in hopes of teaching them that there is potential with technology, even underwater photography, filmmaking. … That there are careers from the ocean,” Aquino said.
Aquino believes that educational outreach is key to the success of marine conservation in Haiti. Sea turtles can be found along the whole coastline of Haiti according to Aquino, and species include green sea turtles, hawksbill sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles, and leatherback sea turtles.
“They’re the most vulnerable because they can come onshore, it’s not just the fishermen catching them. It’s the locals on the shore,” Aquino said. “It’s also survival, and they eat the meat and it’s food, so you can’t really argue when their kids are starving because I don’t know if I wouldn’t say no to a sea turtle if it was my daughter’s life on the line,” Aquino explained.
The Haiti Ocean Project’s current goal is to create a turtle hospital, in order to help increase sea turtle education within the community, introduce sea turtle research, and increase the Haiti Ocean Project’s rescue and rehabilitation abilities. According to Aquino, “we are in the process of getting land donated by the Haiti government in Petite Riviere de Nippes, for us to build our sea turtle hospital.”
Currently, the Haiti Ocean Project has an x-ray machine that was donated, along with sea turtle pools and tanks, lead aprons, a solar power system, and materials to treat superficial wounds among sea turtles such as scalpels and antibiotics.
Aquino explained that the x-ray machine donation made a huge difference when rescuing sea turtles that have swallowed hooks.
“Since we took the x-ray we could see where the hook was and what its position was, which made the removal so much easier,” said Aquino.
In addition to removing hooks, the Haiti Ocean Project helps heal wounds and also tags the rescued sea turtles in hopes of tracking and protecting them.
Aquino is the co-country coordinator in Haiti for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network. As part of this position, she is working through her organization to administer flipper tags to the turtles that have been captured and released into the wild.
Aquino hopes to get enough money so the Haiti Ocean Project can create their own turtle flipper tags. Right now the tags say Barbados on them, and Aquino explained this confuses some of the fishermen that catch the sea turtles in their nets. With the creation of a Haiti turtle tag, a local Haiti phone number would be displayed which would indicate that the sea turtle was valuable, and the number would connect to the sea turtle coordinator so that fishermen will know what to do.
Ultimately, the Haiti Ocean Project wants to introduce the turtle hospital because “we want to be able to give every sea turtle patient a fighting chance and because it would help the community by creating opportunities for research and education and training,” Aquino said.
Thankfully neither the island nor the organization had been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the organization has many needs to continue and expand its work.
In conjunction with Aquino’s presentation in February, STPS will host a drive to collect donated items that might be of use to the Haiti Ocean Project and the local community. The drive will run through Feb. 12, 2021, and items may be dropped off during business hours at the STPS Turtle House, 111 S. Miramar Ave. in Indialantic, FL.
Items needed include hats, sunglasses, fishing gear, headlamps, flashlights, underwater cameras, snorkel gear (masks, snorkels, and fins of all sizes), old smartphones, bags, backpacks, life vests, and items for the sea turtle hospital.
The headlamps are useful for the fishermen who go out before sunrise, and the flashlights are useful for observing sea turtle tracks at night and navigating in the dark, Aquino explained. And although it sounds like a strange request, the old smartphones are used by the fishermen, “to document the endangered marine life they encounter at sea.”
For those interested in supporting the Haiti Ocean Project’s goal to build the first sea turtle hospital in Haiti, donations may be made directly to Haiti Ocean Project.