What is the rationale behind the IOSEA International Flipper Tag Recovery Database?

For many decades, conservationists have made a huge investment – at least in terms of human resources and time – applying hundreds of thousands of flipper tags to turtles across the Indian Ocean region (and beyond).  It is well known that the recovery rate for these tags is extremely small for a variety of reasons, including: natural mortality, tag loss (due to corrosion/fouling, physical abrasion, improper application etc.), low probability of re-encounter of a tagged turtle, etc.

Compounding these low odds is the fact that individuals finding a tag might not return it to the point of origin, even if they may be disposed to cooperate (and many may not be so inclined).  For example, a fisherman in a remote location just trying to make ends meet, might have little motivation or even possibility to find a post office, purchase an envelope and stamp, and send the tag to the post office box inscribed on the tag, located in some unfamiliar, faraway place.  (This begs the question whether in this era of ubiquitous telephones and internet connectivity, postal addresses on tags could be dispensed with altogether in favour of an email address and/or SMS number for a relatively permanent institution.)

Beyond all of this, there remains an essential question of what happens when a tag is recovered and returned to the original tagger.  How is that event recorded and the information shared and publicized?  One could imagine that the information surrounding many tag recovery events is not shared as widely as possible; and that no one really has a complete picture of tag recoveries for a sub-region, let alone the entire area covered by IOSEA.

The IOSEA International Flipper Tag Recovery Database aims to address these fundamental shortcomings by making it easier for interested persons to record and share information about recovered tags; and eventually to facilitate useful analyses of the data compiled from across the region. 

For whom is the database intended?

The database is primarily intended to be used by:

  • Government agencies and nongovernmental organisations with a regular field presence, who come across tags directly (e.g. during nesting events, strandings, or sightings) or receive details of tags from other sources;
  • Fishermen who recover tags from turtles accidentally caught in their nets;
  • Divers who occasionally encounter marine turtles in the wild;
  • Observers on fishing fleets; and
  • Other individuals who are in a position to provide reliable information on tagged turtles.

The database will also be of interest to scientists/researchers interested in analysing flipper tag data as part of more comprehensive studies of turtle migration.

The initial focus of the database is the Western Indian Ocean, for which some tag recovery data have already been made available, but it is hoped that there will be a rapid uptake in each of the other IOSEA sub-regions: Northwest Indian Ocean, Northern Indian Ocean, and South-East Asia +, as the database becomes more widely publicized.

Does the database aim to capture all tagging activity in the IOSEA region?

It is expected that the database will eventually be extended to include tag recoveries for all six species of marine turtles occurring in the IOSEA region. However, the database is not meant to record all tagging events at source, nor is it meant to record all tag recoveries within a given country, many of which relate to turtles that are observed within the same national jurisdiction.  A new entry in the database will be triggered only when a tag is recovered from a turtle that was tagged in another country.  This geographical distinction is obviously artificial, but it serves to align the contents of the database with the underlying purpose of the IOSEA Marine Turtle MoU, which is to promote cooperation between and among countries.

What can the database do?

From a user standpoint, the most interesting page is probably the Viewer, which displays a colour-coded map and table showing all turtle recoveries in the system.  Any turtle can be selected from the map, and its basic information and corresponding tagging and retrieval details displayed and edited.  Even more useful is the novel “faceted search” that allows users to drill down and focus their search using specific criteria of interest:  location of tagging/retrieval, year, species, gender, situation upon tagging, and situation/fate upon retrieval.  The entire search process can be performed efficiently without the use of customary dropdown menus, in a way that allows the user to visualize the existing contents of the database in a single display panel.  For users unfamiliar with this approach, help boxes are placed at convenient locations to offer guidance.

Why should I register to use the database?

If you wish to contribute information to the database, you must first register your contact details in the online template – which should only take a couple of minutes. After successful registration, you will be able to enter information about a new tag that comes to your attention, to edit existing tag records for which you/your organisation is responsible, and to view comprehensive details of each record in the database. You will also be given the option of receiving regular updates (by RSS feed) of newly updated tag information from across the region.

How are data providers acknowledged and how can data be used?

Each viewable record will show who provided the information and, in many cases, the circumstances under which the animal was originally tagged and retrieved.  The comprehensive records are viewable only by those who agree to abide by the terms of use of the database, which include an undertaking not to use the data in any publication, product, or commercial application without prior written consent of the data provider(s); and to cite both the data provider(s) and IOSEA appropriately after approval of use is obtained.  Eventually, specific requests for consolidated data in the form of an Excel spreadsheet may be entertained, provided the stipulated conditions for use of the data are met.

How can I support the ongoing development of the database?

We would very much appreciate anyone with published or unpublished data on international flipper tag recoveries in the IOSEA region to come forward and help to populate the database.  Please contact the Secretariat if you are unsure about how best to go about it.  We would be happy to accommodate users who may find it easier to send the data in a spreadsheet, for the Secretariat to enter manually. 

Apart from supplying new data, users might help to revise a number of existing records that are incomplete in some respect or in need of review/revision.  These records are kept in a list of "Incomplete records - seeking info", which can be accessed from the main 'Explore' page.

Finally, IOSEA Focal Points and other contributors to the IOSEA Flipper Tag Series, which is currently maintained in a separate part of the IOSEA website, are encouraged to review and update the list of flipper tag series in use in their respective countries.  Simply email the Secretariat with any necessary amendments.  The existing Flipper Tag Series webpage will eventually be replaced by a new display, to reflect its full integration with the new Flipper Tag Recovery Database.

Final words

The IOSEA Secretariat has invested a considerable amount of time over many months to develop this unique database, in collaboration with a talented web application designer.  Like any piece of new software, some bugs will inevitably be encountered as users put it through its paces over the coming weeks and months.  We would appreciate receiving your feedback on things that are not working as well as they might, and also any ideas for new features that might be introduced in subsequent updates.

We would like to thank our partners in France, Oman, Seychelles, Somalia, South Africa, and Tanzania who have already provided partial information to begin to populate the database.  And we look forward to receiving even more international flipper tag recovery data in the months to come!

Douglas Hykle, Pishum Migraine, Sanjil Shrestha
Bangkok, April 2014