Baja Turtle Blues

Saving endangered sea turtles calls for more than protecting the reptiles on their nesting beaches

08-01-2003 // Laura Tangley
Baja Turtle Blues magazine layout - turtle

WHEN WALLACE J. NICHOLS first came to Mexico’s Baja California peninsula as a graduate student in 1991, he would have been surprised had someone told him what he’d be doing on a warm spring day 12 years later. Accompanied by a handful of college students and other volunteers, the sea turtle biologist known as "J." picks through piles of plastic bags, tin cans, clam shells and other refuse in a town dump on Magdalena Island, just off the peninsula’s Pacific coast. The group’s objective: to locate and identify by species every sea turtle carapace discarded here since the last survey three months ago.

Nichols, a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences and codirector of Wildcoast, a California-based conservation group, came up with the idea of the dump surveys eight years ago as a way to estimate the number of sea turtles illegally killed and eaten in Baja. "We needed to do this," he explains, "to prove that there’s a problem here."

Indeed, there is a problem. By the end of the day last spring, Nichols’ group and four others combing through dumps and backyards in and around the town of Puerto San Carlos had discovered 80 new turtle carapaces. (The shells are marked with spray paint so they won’t be counted again.) Based on years of such surveys, combined with interviews up and down both coasts, Nichols has estimated that as many as 35,000 turtles are consumed in the region every year, "a pretty impressive number," he says, "when you consider that eating sea turtle has been against the law in Mexico since 1990."

Now, thanks to Nichols and an enthusiastic team of Baja fishermen and conservationists, the tide may be turning for these ancient and imperiled reptiles. Harnessing a mix of creative research and education tools—from surveying both dead and live turtles to dressing in sea turtle costumes, appearing on television with rock stars, even appealing to the Catholic Church—these tireless activists are buoyed up by even small signs of progress. "I’m encouraged," says Nichols, "if someone tells me they’ll eat five turtles a year instead of ten."

Five out of seven of the world’s sea turtle species—all listed as endangered, threatened or vulnerable by international treaty and the U.S. government—inhabit the nutrient-rich waters that surround the Baja California peninsula. Four species (green, loggerhead, leatherback and olive ridley) also spend time in U.S. waters off the state of California, swimming as far north as San Francisco Bay. Noting that political borders mean nothing to turtles and other sea creatures, Nichols refers to this entire coastal zone as "the Californias."

Baja Turtle Blues - biologist Nichols with shells

Photo: © DAVID M. BARRON

TURTLE GRAVEYARD: Biologist Wallace J. Nichols sits among some of the sea turtle shells collected from town dumps and backyards in and around San Carlos on Baja California’s Pacific coast. Though killing sea turtles has been illegal for more than a decade, he estimates that as many as 35,000 are caught and eaten in the region each year. The Baja California peninsula is a key feeding and developmental area for the black turtle, whose numbers on mainland Mexican nesting beaches have fallen more than 95 percent over the past three decades.

In Baja, the most common—and most commonly eaten—species are loggerhead and, especially, green turtles. Taxonomic studies suggest that Baja’s green turtles, known as East Pacific green, or black, turtles, are a distinct subspecies. Hatched from eggs laid on mainland Mexican beaches in the state of Michoacan, juvenile and adult turtles swim close to shore both in the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean, feeding primarily on sea grass and algae. The black turtle is considered the most endangered green turtle subspecies.

Found mostly in deeper Pacific waters, the peninsula’s loggerheads hatch from eggs laid more than 7,500 miles away on beaches in Japan. These turtles spend the first two to six years of their lives at sea, traveling with ocean currents to get to Baja, where they feed on its abundant pelagic red crabs. At maturity, the turtles swim back to Japan to mate and lay eggs of their own—or at least they try to. Many loggerheads are killed in nets and on fishing hooks before they reach their rookeries, where the number of mature females has fallen by almost half since 1990.

It was only recently, thanks to Nichols and his colleagues, that Baja’s importance as a feeding and developmental area for these species became well known. Though previous research had noted a genetic connection between loggerheads in Japan and Baja, they supplied the first physical proof by attaching metal tags to the turtles’ flippers—so individuals tagged in Mexico could be identified in Japan—and tracking the animals’ transpacific migrations by satellite. They used the same methods to demonstrate that black turtles hatched on beaches in southern Mexico head to the peninsula’s waters to feed and mature, a process that can take up to 30 years.

Most of the turtles never make it. Nichols’ work, especially the dump surveys, also has exposed the toll Baja’s illegal harvests are taking. Before his results, sea turtle conservation efforts in Mexico, and most places in the world, focused exclusively on protecting adult females, eggs and hatchlings on nesting beaches. But as Nichols points out, "sea turtles spend 99 percent of their lives at sea, a time when they are unstudied and unprotected."

Consider the fate of the black turtle, whose nesting sites in southern Mexico have been protected by what Nichols calls "a model beach project"—involving an international team of scientists, local and foreign volunteers and even the Mexican military—for the past 25 years. Even so, the number of nesting females continued to fall. At Colola, the black turtle’s single most important Mexican rookery, 25,000 females had come ashore to lay eggs in 1970. By the early 1980s, that figure had dropped to 1,271, and by the late 1990s to fewer than 500.

"Until J. brought the problem to light, we didn’t know where we were losing all those turtles," says Jack Woody, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official who funded the Colola project for many years. "Of course, we knew there was some illegal catch in Baja but nothing like what he’s found."

Nichols’ findings altered the course of his career as well. "When so many of the animals you’re studying are being caught and eaten," he says, "you start to wonder if science is the most important thing to do." Science also turned out to be simpler than the conservation work he’s taken on. One of the biggest problems in Baja is a long, deep-seated tradition of eating sea turtle. Barbecued in the shell and made into soup or taco filling, turtle typically is served on special occasions such as birthdays, weddings and even political rallies. The worst time of year is the week before Easter, when many Catholics eat turtle in the mistaken belief that, because they live in the water, the reptiles must be fish and can be eaten during Lent.

Baja Turtle Blues - turtle and people

Photo: © DAVID M. BARRON

REACHING OUT: In San Carlos on the peninsula’s Pacific side, Nichols appeals to Mexican children (above). Pointing to a satellite transmitter on a loggerhead’s carapace, he explains that the reptile will migrate more than 7,500 miles to nest on Japanese beaches—if it’s not killed en route. Nichols believes such efforts are beginning to have an impact. "I’m encouraged," he says, "when someone tells me they’ll eat five turtles a year instead of ten."

Still, before fishing technology modernized—about three decades ago—turtle harvests, then legal, did not come close to doing the damage they do today. One Baja fisherman, Juan de la Cruz, remembers capturing the reptiles from a small sailboat using a hand-held harpoon in the 1950s. "It was hard work, so you were selective, taking only the big turtles," he says. "You also stayed home in bad weather." All that changed in the early 1960s, when motorboats and big mono-filament nets became popular. "The net is dangerous," says de la Cruz, who now helps Nichols protect sea turtles. "You leave a net out for days, and it kills everything." He adds that beginning in the 1970s, he saw fewer and fewer turtles every year and de-cided to stop harvesting the animals long before the practice was banned.

Others merely in-tensified their efforts. Although Mexico today has strong laws that prohibit killing sea turtles, these are rarely enforced and, when they are, punishment is minimal. A nationwide problem, this situation is even worse in Baja. One challenge stems from the size and geography of the peninsula: 1,000 miles of coastline bordered by inhospitable and largely uninhabited desert. PROFEPA, the government’s enforcement agency, has only 13 agents to patrol this immense territory.

But according to fishermen, conservationists and turtle eaters interviewed in several Baja communities, corruption is also a serious problem. Some of the worst violators of the law, in fact, are politicians and government officials, who can afford the steep price a turtle now commands. "If a government worker comes by and notices I have a sea turtle in my backyard," complains de la Cruz, "he won’t tell me to put it back in the water. He’ll ask, ‘How much?’"

Such difficulties have forced some Baja fishermen to take matters into their own hands. Discouraged by population crashes of these once abundant animals, and inspired by Nichols’ passion, eight fishing communities banded together five years ago to form the Sea Turtle Conservation Network of the Californias. Members—who when they join must sign a pledge to stop eating turtle themselves—enforce conservation laws when government officials don’t or can’t. Miguel Lizarraga, who heads a member cooperative in Puerto San Carlos, says his group has imposed a tax on their own shrimp harvests. The proceeds fund anti-poaching patrols. "When we find a turtle in a net, we release it," says Lizarraga.

Network members also participate in scientific research. Once a month, each group sets out nets at shallow-water monitoring sites where black turtles are known to congregate. Captured turtles are weighed, measured and tagged before being released. To tag and study loggerheads, they head to deeper water, jumping overboard and wrangling the huge creatures, rodeo-style, onto the boats.

One San Carlos cooperative member, Rodrigo Rangel, has become so enthusiastic about the work that he now plans to go back to school and become a biologist—a far cry from the man he was three years ago who routinely caught and ate turtles. Stories such as Rangel’s are what give Nichols the greatest hope for the future. "In the end," he says, "it will be a matter of door-to-door, face-to-face contacts with people."

But Nichols does not rely on individual conversions alone. Last spring, he and colleagues from WildCoast and the sea turtle network traveled to Mexico City to carry out a national media blitz just before Holy Week, the most dangerous time for turtles. Their campaign included public education, street theater and guest appearances on all of Mexico’s national television and radio stations.

Baja Turtle Blues - billboard in San Diego

Photo: © TERRI GARLAND (WILDCOAST)

TARGETED ADVERTISING: "Would You Eat a Panda?" asks a billboard in San Diego, capitalizing on the popularity of this local zoo mammal in an area where some residents still eat sea turtles caught in Baja California.


The previous spring, Nichols appealed to the most influential authority of all. He wrote a letter to the Pope, asking him to declare that sea turtle is meat so Catholics would stop eating the reptiles on religious holidays. Though he’s received only a note from the Vatican acknowledging receipt of the letter, he has not given up on this unorthodox approach. As he waited to meet a priest in Loreto, Mexico, last March, Nichols had to admit that "this is about as far from science as you can get."

There are signs that some of these efforts are paying off. In Punta Abreojos, a small Pacific coast community that was one of the first Nichols worked with, all fishermen have agreed to stop catching or eating sea turtle, and they revoke the fishing rights of anyone who breaks the pact. Two hundred miles south, in Loreto Bay, de la Cruz says he’s seeing more black turtles in the water these days. And perhaps the most encouraging news comes from Colola, where 2,000 and 1,500 female black turtles (which do not nest every year) came ashore to lay eggs in 2001 and 2002 respectively, the highest numbers in 20 years.

Yet Nichols, ever an optimist, is also realistic. "What’s important to remember," he says, "is that these numbers still represent a population decline of more than 95 percent since 1970. We have a tremendous amount of work to do before we can talk about the recovery of the black turtle."

While reporting for this story last spring, senior editor Laura Tangley visited Nichols and his colleagues in Baja California.

NWF Priority

Conservation Across Borders

To help Wallace J. Nichols conduct his research on sea turtles, NWF gave him a grant in 2000 through its Keep the Wild Alive™ program, which has also contributed to other projects targeting species that cross between the United States and Mexico, including the humpback whale, Mexican gray wolf and Sonoran pronghorn. Another NWF program, Alianza para la Vida Silvestre (Partnership for Wildlife), is developing a variety of educational and advocacy projects to assist its partners in Mexico as they build greater public support for conservation. Specific efforts include helping Mexican teachers create schoolyard habitats, adapting environmental education materials for Mexican schools, and organizing workshops that provide advocacy training for Mexican environmental activists. To learn more about sea turtles, see www.eNature.com/seaturtles .

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