Dr. Donna Shaver, Chief of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery for the National Park Service, began her career at Padre Island National Seashore as an SCA intern in 1980 and eventually joined the staff full-time, helping to guide an innovative program that reintroduced Kemp’s ridley sea turtles to Padre Island’s beaches through experimental imprinting and head-starting. Recognized today as one of the world’s foremost authorities on sea turtle conservation, Dr. Shaver has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sea Turtle Society, among many other honors.
You have worked on sea turtle conservation for nearly your entire career. What is it about sea turtles that captured and has kept your interest for so many years?
As a student at Cornell University, I decided I wanted to my career to focus on the conservation and study of threatened and endangered species. Pinned on the corkboard in the main Natural Resources building, I saw the SCA brochure announcing amazing intern opportunities all over the country. When I found the position available at Padre Island National Seashore, I dashed to my dorm room and changed the course of my entire future. You see, the short job description stated that the job concentrated on helping with efforts to form a secondary nesting colony of the world’s most critically endangered sea turtle species there, to provide a safeguard against species extinction, as part of the bi-national, multi-agency project, the Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Enhancement Project that began in 1978. Little did I know, as my mother dropped me off at Padre Island National Seashore in 1980 to begin my SCA position, that this would become the home of my life-long career. I saw the ocean for the first time and on my first day of work; I saw a sea turtle for the first time.
Each year as I learned more, enhanced scientific understanding, integrated findings to improve management actions, conservation, and recovery, the nesting numbers rose and we made landmark scientific findings. I was tasked in many important roles to apply my knowledge and use data gathered at Padre Island National Seashore as the barometer of this species. I ascended to be a respected expert in the field.
It has been far from easy over the last four decades, but my work transformed me from Shy Donna from Syracuse, New York, to the spokesperson for this critical work and for sea turtle conservation and research in Texas. I have become one of a handful of sea turtle experts working for the Department of the Interior, and, as many have argued, the leading Kemp’s ridley sea turtle expert in the U.S. My focus has now grown from working to help save the species. I now realize that my role is to also mentor young women and men who come work for this program and to provide them with the working experience, knowledge, training, and inspiration needed to pursue their work passions and dreams as I did. Hopefully, some of these young biologists will commit to continue to carry the torch for this critical program as I did decades ago.
How did you view headstarting eggs back in the 1980s – innovative? Far-fetched? A last chance?
The National Park Service and our binational partners believed that headstarting was a final effort to try to save this species that would otherwise go extinct in the immediate future. By the late 1970’s, despite the intensive protection measures at the main nesting beach in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico in the mid-1960s, the numbers of Kemp’s ridley nests continued to plummet. The outlook for this species was very bleak. The Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Restoration and Enhancement Program aimed to form secondary nesting colony at Padre Island National Seashore using these experimental imprinting and headstarting techniques. Additionally, to save the population, nesting turtles and nests were protected at Rancho Nuevo and turtle excluder devices were made mandatory in the shrimp trawling industry. The secondary nesting colony aimed to provide a safeguard against extinction should a natural or human caused disaster strike the nesting beach at Rancho Nuevo, where nearly all nests were observed at the time.
And how did you respond when the evidence began to come in?
The first headstart Kemp’s ridley to nest at Padre Island National Seashore came ashore on May 29, 1996. After a radio call from one of my “turtle patrollers” we quickly made our way to the nesting turtle where she had just begun to cover her nest. Brushing sand off her top shell, I revealed her living tag, a type of identification marker used to distinguish headstart turtles. The living tag, a white spot set against the darker background of her shell, was the first indication that headstart turtles, released off Padre Island National Seashore in the late 1970s and 1980s, had successfully survived to adulthood and returned to nest here. This first returnee provided evidence and gave me hope that the hard work of so many people could successfully result in the formation of the secondary nesting colony. This news was a milestone in the conservation of this species, showing that this experimental program could pay off in ways that so may who came before me had envisioned.
Four decades later, how have the threats to sea turtle populations changed and where do you think we will be 40 years from now?
While the Kemp’s ridley nesting population in Texas has dramatically increased over the last forty years as a direct result of the program at Padre Island National Seashore, many threats to this population still exist today, and a few are only getting worse. Protecting the nesting females and nests from threats in the environment are still key to making sure the population continues to recover. However, one of the increasing threats are the changes brought about by climate change that have led to increasing beach tidal inundations and rising beach sand temperatures that can become lethal to developing embryos in the nests. Additionally, concerns regarding reduced habitat quality in the Gulf of Mexico have also been suggested as a possible reason that the species recovery has stagnated in recent years. Our ongoing research seeks to illuminate these issues so that management techniques can be used to address these in the future.
What advice would you give to young people, and particularly young women, looking to pursue a career in environmental science?
One of the hardest obstacles I have had to overcome in my career has been being a woman in this field. Throughout my education, I only had a single female professor, and I lacked women role models as I began my career. I have also faced harassment and discrimination from colleagues, as well as had my work and opinions discounted because of my gender.
I learned to overcome these challenges through persistence and hard work, as well as diplomatically speaking up when others neglected to treat me equally. It is important to create a work environment where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.
In addition to being an SCA alum yourself, you have hosted dozens of SCA participants over the years. What is different about young people now vs when you first hosted SCA members? What is the same?
It has been a joy to host SCA participants, and their enthusiasm is a joy to behold and very motivating to all our staff. This has been the case during all the years we have been involved. We are also grateful to see the diversity and inclusion of otherwise overlooked groups has increased over time in the program.
Other than Padre Islands, do you have a favorite national park site?
Padre Island is by far my favorite national park with no other in close running.
If there is something that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career, what would that be?
Be bold, confident, and ready to contribute even while you are still learning.
Visit the SCA100k page for more information on our ten ambassadors.