Conserving Sea Turtles on the Pacific Coasts of Nicaragua and El Salvador

by Dipika Chawla

Photo by Brad Nahill

Of the seven species of sea turtles, six are found in American and Caribbean waters, and all are currently listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Though causes of population declines vary slightly from species to species and between countries, a common thread is humans. People living in some coastal communities unsustainably harvest adult turtles and their eggs for consumption, cosmetics, jewelry, and other products, despite many national laws prohibiting it. Unsustainable coastal development can degrade or destroy sea turtle nesting sites and their coral reef habitats, and incidental capture in fishing gear kills thousands of sea turtles off the shores of the Americas and the Caribbean Islands annually.

Four sea turtle species have critically important nesting beaches in Central America: hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), green (Chelonia mydas), olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea). Conservationist Brad Nahill recently visited several of these nesting sites in El Salvador and Nicaragua to observe the work being done on a local level by marine biologists and nonprofit organizations to protect sea turtles.  Nahill – a wildlife activist, journalist, and co-founder of SEEtheWILD, a wildlife conservation tourism initiative – has been working in sea turtle conservation, ecotourism, and environmental education in the Americas for more than 12 years.

Photo by Brad Nahill

Toluca, El Salvador

Nahill’s first stop was Toluca, a small village on El Salvador’s central coast. Historically, El Salvadorians have consumed more than 95 percent of the sea turtle eggs laid in the country. In 2009, the country’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources enacted a complete and permanent ban on the sale and consumption of sea turtles and their products, such as their eggs or jewelry made from their shells, which has had both economic and cultural implications.

In Toluca, Nahill met with Enriqueta Ramírez, the leader of a national sea turtle conservation organization called ViVAZUL. Ramírez is tackling the long-standing, male-dominated tradition of “turtling,” where local men harvest eggs and sell them on the black market. Income earned from egg poaching often comprises a significant portion of household income – Nahill estimates that one turtle nest of 140 eggs is worth more than ten percent of the average monthly income in this area.

Nahill attended a meeting in which Ramírez spoke to an audience of about 50 tortugueros, as the egg poachers are called in Spanish, who are participating in a USAID-funded incentive program, where they are directly compensated for collecting turtle eggs and bringing them to hatcheries instead of selling them. Now two years old, the program has been a success – but Ramírez and other sea turtle conservationists in the area believe this approach is unsustainable over the long term. Besides the challenges of securing continual funding, the cultural aspects of “turtling” persist; for decades, tortugueros have met up every night for what they still describe as a “sport” or “pastime,” and demand for the eggs on the black market remains high, partially due to the long-held belief that they are a powerful aphrodisiac.

In addition to managing hatcheries, ViVAZUL also brings local children to participate in sea turtle hatchling releases, hoping that the experience will instill in them a lasting affinity for sea turtles and a conservation ethic. This approach underscores a hope that the next generation will foster a shift in the perceived value of sea turtles and wildlife in general.

Photo by Brad Nahill

Traveling south along the Pacific coast, Nahill’s next two stops were Jiquilisco Bay in El Salvador and Padre Ramos Estuary in Nicaragua.  At Jiquilisco Bay, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a RAMSAR site, Nahill joined an impressive team of fellow sea turtle experts: Alex Gaos and Ingrid Yañez, co-founders of the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO, for its name in Spanish); Jose Urteaga, the head of Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) sea turtle program in Nicaragua; Jeff Seminoff, director of marine turtle research at the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and Randall Arauz, founder of Pretoma, a leading sea turtle conservation organization in Costa Rica.

Jiquilisco Bay and Padre Ramos Estuary have attracted interest from sea turtle conservationists in recent years due to groundbreaking new research on the critically endangered hawksbill turtle population conducted by Gaos, Yañez, Urteaga, and Seminoff, along with several other marine scientists. Before their study, it was believed that the eastern Pacific hawksbill population was functionally extinct – hawksbills in all other parts of the world dwell almost exclusively in coral reef habitats, and there were virtually no hawksbills to be found among the few coral reefs in the region. In 2008, the team made a breakthrough discovery with incredible ecological implications. Using satellite transmitters, they found a significant number of hawksbill turtles residing in coastal estuarine bays, particularly mangrove saltwater forests. Their 2011 report states that this discovery “probably represents a relatively recent adaptation and possibly a unique evolutionary trajectory for this population.”

The turtles led them to Jiquilisco Bay, a mangrove-lined series of inlets and canals that is now known as a critically important hawksbill foraging and nesting site. A few years later, they found more nesting sites in the Padre Ramos Estuary Natural Reserve, a smaller but similar habitat located a few hundred miles south on the coast of Nicaragua. Together, Padre Ramos Estuary and Jiquilisco Bay comprise more than ninety percent of nesting habitat for the entire eastern Pacific hawksbill population.

Photo by Brad Nahill

ICAPO is managing the hawksbill conservation project at Jiquilisco, while FFI has taken the lead at Padre Ramos. Both organizations are working together to collect data on the hawksbills’ life cycle and migratory routes and to educate communities to prevent further population declines. They are employing the familiar strategy of paying tortugueros (or careyeros, as they are called in Padre Ramos) to collect eggs and bring them to hatcheries, as well as organizing annual turtle festivals in their respective communities. At Jiquilisco Bay’s hawksbill festival, Nahill joined hundreds of local schoolchildren, dignitaries, and community members as they celebrated turtles with a parade and other fun activities. The festival garnered a considerable amount of national media attention—reporters and cameramen accompanied the crowds of people gathered around ICAPO scientists as they placed satellite transmitters on three turtles and released them into the Bay.

Less than one week later, Nahill received the sad news that one of the three turtles had been killed by blast fishing—a practice in which fishermen drop homemade bombs into the water, indiscriminately killing everything within range.

“Blast fishing is probably the number one threat to the turtles in this area,” said Nahill. “Not only is it extremely destructive to marine life, it’s also really dangerous for the fishermen – they can lose limbs.”

Though blast fishing is technically illegal, local politics, loopholes in regulations, and the manpower needed to effectively patrol coastal areas makes the ban extremely difficult to enforce. Organizations are trying to put pressure on the government to step up enforcement and regulation, though the main focus is working directly with the fishers.  “These are very community-based organizations,” Nahill emphasized. “They prefer to work directly with the local people.”

ICAPO and EcoViva, another regional organization, are educating fishers about the dangers and harmful effects of blast fishing and more sustainable alternatives. They’re also coordinating patrols of Jiquilisco Bay and providing assistance to local fishing cooperatives who switch from blasting to sustainable fishing practices.  In Padre Ramos, FFI is working with fishers to combat incidental capture in fishing gear. Urteaga’s team teaches them how to release trapped turtles when they find them in their nets and shrimp trawls and promotes more environmentally-friendly fishing gear.

At the Padre Ramos Estuary, Nahill and the rest of the group set up nets in the estuary in the hopes of catching a male hawksbill to fit with a satellite transmitter. According to Nahill, very little is known about male hawksbills, as they’re much harder to catch than females, who are easily accessible when they come ashore to nest.

Photo by Brad Nahill

Padre Ramos Estuary

The final stop on Nahill’s trip was the Paso del Istmo, a narrow 12-mile stretch of land between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Ocean, whose coastline is home to critically important green and olive ridley turtle nesting beaches. Nahill met with Liza González, who is the Nicaragua Country Director of the NGO Paso Pacífico. Paso Pacífico launched a coastal-marine research project in 2011 to contribute to the scientific understanding of sea turtle ecology and improve management practices. The project is divided into five components: habitat mapping, citizen science, sustainable fisheries, beach and reef ranger training, and community outreach and environmental education.

Paso Pacífico is also employing ecotourism to promote sea turtle conservation, as it is a sustainable economic incentive for communities to preserve wildlife and their habitats.

“I’ve seen a transformation take place in communities when people realize that tourists will come from far away to see their turtles alive,” explains Nahill. “It helps to effect a change in mindset when they realize that preserving these creatures is a long-term investment that is beneficial for the development of their community.”

A type of ecotourism called volunteer tourism, in which travelers volunteer in a foreign country, can provide an added benefit for conservation organizations. Nahill is the founder of a “voluntourism” project called SEE Turtles that connects travelers with sea turtle conservation projects in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Sea turtle conservation is especially well-suited for volunteer tourism because you don’t have to be a biologist to do it,” said Nahill. “If you can do simple things like use a tape measure and write down numbers, you can be a huge help to these projects.”

Photo by Brad Nahill/SEE Turtles, MexicoMany sea turtle projects are shorthanded because they lack the budget to hire staff. In particular, patrolling long, winding coastlines for egg poachers and blast fishers requires a considerable amount of manpower. Volunteers assist beach patrols as well as data collection, hatchling releases, and other activities. Since its inception in 2008, SEE Turtles has sent 10-20 volunteers each year to help organizations such as Paso Pacífico and ICAPO, and Nahill expects that number to increase dramatically in the next few years.

Nahill himself started out as a volunteer on a sea turtle conservation project in Costa Rica over a decade ago. He was inspired by the beauty of these creatures, and that short but profound experience ended up turning into a career.

“It’s definitely not for everyone,” said Nahill. “The work can be tiring, and some of these places are fairly rural and rustic. But for the people who can get past that, it can be life-changing.”

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