Duke Environmental Leadership Master of Environmental Management (DEL-MEM) student Jennifer Cherry developed a marine debris education and outreach program for sea turtle conservation for Volusia County, Florida, as part of her Master's Project (MP). She built a database of sea turtle stranding reports and treatment documents compiled by the Marine Science Center from 2015-2020 and then analyzed the trends and relationships in the data. These analyses led to the development of “The Pieces Add Up: Traveling Sea Turtle Trunk," which allows participants to be transformed into a conservation team members while learning about how marine debris impacts turtles, as well as a strategic plan that will provide the framework for an education program to be potentially integrated into the Volusia County environmental management department.

Duke Environment recently corresponded with Cherry to discuss the key findings of her MP and the skills she learned working on the project.

What are the key findings of your MP?

The top three trends revealed that most marine debris issues are from monofilament line entanglement, green turtles (Chelonia mydas) are the most impacted species, and there is growth in the threats from marine debris. Based on the literature I reviewed, the assessment of marine debris ingestion by sea turtles is important, especially to ensure their survival. The data and analysis for my project added value to these statements since there were impacts to turtles seen in the sea turtle hospital treatment documents. Based on the scope of this project I found that more attention and educational programming needs to be placed on proper disposal and use of monofilament lines and plastic-based products due to the growing trends of impact. Also, there needs to be continued use of a systematic documentation process for recording marine-related impacts at the sea turtle hospital.

What have you learned from doing this project that will help you in your career?

This project has helped with my data management and data analysis skills. With the results from the data analysis, I am better equipped to create educational materials for the county government, local sea turtle non-profit and for use in the public education setting. With this data related to the specific county of focus, I was able to increase awareness of the issues with marine debris on our ocean and provide specific examples of local items and issues of concern. With the educational program that I developed, I was able to learn new skills on how to create effective educational materials that will not only increase participant understanding but also keep the participants engaged and inspired to take action to make a positive difference.

What drew you to this project/client?

Sea turtles have played vital roles in maintaining the health of the world's oceans for more than 100 million years by transporting essential nutrients. It is estimated that only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings will survive to adulthood. Sea turtles are an incredible species that need our help! They are adapted to life in an environment completely disparate from our own. So, it was my mission to use this project to inspire and educate others on ways to help support our ocean and sea turtle species!

Being able to establish a database to store and organize this data for the Marine Science Center will allow for an in-depth data analysis to be performed to note potential local areas of concern. In addition, having real data to provide to the public in an appealing way will increase awareness of the problem. It is important to highlight that man-made plastic products are continuing to enter the marine environment at unprecedented scales and are dramatically impacting coastal marine life.

I am actively involved in a sea turtle non-profit called the New Smyrna Beach Marine Turtle Conservancy where I assist with sea turtle conservation and education and outreach events to promote a healthy ocean and beach ecosystem to ensure the highest level of success for wildlife. My love for the environment started at a very young age and I grew up going to the Marine Science Center, the client for this project. Among my family, friends and my students, I am known as the turtle enthusiast. I will talk about sea turtle conservation every chance I can get, so it only seemed right to spend my time on my MP working on an increasingly alarming issue impacting sea turtles.

The Master’s Project combines the academic rigor of a thesis with the practical experience of an internship, allowing students to apply the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom to projects that tackle real-world environmental challenges.

All sea turtle work conducted under FWC MT Permit-162-22