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REPORT ON SEA TURTLE CONFERENCE

Chris Pesenti

(This article was originally published in the Journal of Environment and Development, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2002).

How do you gauge the successfulness of an environmental conference? If it is based on numbers of attendees, it would be hard to dispute the success of the 4th Annual Meeting of the Sea Turtle Conservation Network of the Californias held in Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico, from January 25-27, 2002. Each year the conference has taken place the last weekend in January in Loreto, and with over 150 attendees this year, participants have watched it grow to over three times its original size in 1999. This year's event, organized by WiLDCOAST and the Grupo Ecologista Antares and sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund – Mexico, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Ocean Planet Research, IUCN, the Sea of Cortez International Preservation Foundation, and the Blue Planet Marine Research Foundation, carried the title "Sea Turtle Conservation ~ The Next Generation." The fact that this title itself points to the future symbolizes the progress the Network has made to date in its efforts toward sea turtle preservation along the coastline of the Californias (California, Baja California, and Baja California Sur).

The Sea Turtle Conservation Network of the Californias is a web of local fisherman, students and academics, researchers, environmentalists, and concerned citizens who work in their local communities to combat the decimation of sea turtle populations along the coast of the Californias. The yearly meeting of the Network gives the group's participants the chance to review achievements, share strategies, develop future goals, and spread the message of sea turtle conservation in hope of slowing the annihilation of turtle populations along the coast of the Californias. The Sea Turtle Conservation Network of the Californias (Grupo Tortuguero de las Californias) was formed on January 23rd 1999 at the office of the non-profit Grupo Ecologista de Antares, A.C. (GEA) in Loreto, BCS, "to bring together individuals and organizations working for the recovery of Baja California's sea turtles, to share knowledge, discuss results and issues, plan projects and conduct workshops on basic field research techniques." WiLDCOAST, the California arm of the Network founded by Drs. Wallace J. Nichols and Serge Dedina in January of 2000, is a partnership-based international conservation team whose mission is to preserve the endangered marine species and coastal wildlands of the Californias.

At risk in the region are five of the world's seven species of sea turtle, all of which find themselves officially "threatened" or "endangered." These include the Loggerhead, the East Pacific Green (also known as the Black Turtle), the Leatherback, the Ridley, and the Hawksbill turtles. Even though the killing of sea turtles has been outlawed in Mexico since a 1990 presidential decree, researchers estimate that poachers in Baja California kill anywhere from 7,800 to 30,000 sea turtles a year. The slaughter takes place to feed an increasing demand for turtle meat that has tragically kept pace with population growth in Mexico. The Easter or Semana Santa season is the worst, when turtle meat is the traditional meal of choice in many homes along the Baja California peninsula. Faced with little or no opposition from authorities, economics are clearly the deciding factor for poachers, who can earn anywhere from $50 to $200 for a mature turtle. The results are devastating: the number of mature females returning to the green turtle's main nesting beach in southern Mexico has dropped precipitously, from some 25,000 in 1970 to fewer than 500 in 2000. Can the decimation of sea turtle populations be stopped?

Saturday morning of this year's conference, groups within the Network presented updates on their respective communities which included: Bahía de Los Angeles, Bahía de Magdalena, Cabo San Lucas, Guerrero Negro, Laguna San Ignacio, La Paz, Loreto, Monterey Bay, Múlege, Punto Abreojos, Sinalóa, San Diego, and Michoacán. Miguel Lizarraga's summary of activities in his community of Bahía Magdalena reflected the efforts taking place in many of the communities. These included: increased vigilance, the mounting of educational campaigns, freeing trapped turtles, discouraging the use of nets in areas frequented by turtles and manta rays, and working to expand collaboration with police and other authorities.

Representatives from other groups were able to add to this by recounting their own experiences. The Cabo San Lucas members highlighted the fact that over the past year they had established relations with a local ecotourism outfitter, finding a way to incorporate turtle observation into the company's repertoire of activities. Antonio Cantú from the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur (UABCS) in La Paz noted that efforts to acquire land towards establishment of a marine sanctuary in Espíritu Santu were currently working their way through the Mexican legal system. Alfredo Gutiérrez from the Loreto group showed data collected in the local community based on monitoring campaigns of dead turtles. By looking through refuse sites, the researchers were able to record where shells had been discarded, and assumedly, where turtle meat was being consumed. This information could then be used to more accurately target efforts towards education and law enforcement. Students from Múlege and Laguna San Ignacio detailed their efforts at educating primary and secondary school children of the plight of their beloved sea turtles. Similarly, Hans Fernan of WiLDCOAST in San Diego described his efforts to bring attention to the city's 60 resident green turtles, organizing a poster contest for local school children. While the representative from Bahía de Los Angeles noted that the community's remoteness provided a natural protection for the turtles, current plans of the Mexican federal government to build an Escalera Náutica, or Nautical Ladder, complete with resort hotels, golf courses, marinas and trailer parks promise to shatter this protection. On a positive note, representatives from Michoacán, kept away from the meeting due to current research efforts, forwarded on a slide graphing the numbers recorded of nesting green turtles in the area. From 25,000 in 1970, the numbers plummeted to 4,000 in 1979, 2,000 in 1981 and bottoming out at less than 500 in 2001 until a rise in the 2001-2002 season, during which 3,000 nesting females were counted.

In the afternoon sessions, representatives from the six established monitoring groups shared their techniques and results in capturing, tagging, and releasing turtles.

Following this, Raquel Briseño of Sea Turtle Information Bank (BITMAR) presented a report on the state of conservation in the Mexican Pacific in which she presented a graphic represented by the figure below. While the information contained within may seem obvious, it clearly summarizes the need for a multi-faceted approach to achieving successful sea turtle conservation, reflecting many of the efforts made by the local groups in the Sea Turtle Network. The graphic also presents a clear weakness of one of the four aspects, the normative participation of the three levels of government.

This weakness became evident when representatives from several of the communities led a discussion on enforcement strategies. Each speaker noted that while the laws prohibiting the killing of turtles were on the books, there was little if any enforcement applied. They testified to the impossibility of citizen monitoring groups ensuring compliance of the laws when they themselves lack enforcement authority, they run the risk of violent and often armed retribution, and quite simply lack the numbers to cover the territory necessary. They also repeatedly emphasized the inadequacy of the Federal Agency for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), the government entity charged with enforcing the laws regarding turtle poaching, noting the agency's lack of presence and proper training, as well as its failure to successfully coordinate with local authorities. When an audience member posed the question as to whether any of the panelists could recall an incident over the past year in which the laws regarding the killing of sea turtles had been applied and punishment doled out, not a single member could respond affirmatively. The question was also asked as to why PROFEPA was absent from the meeting, to which Dr. Wallace J. Nichols responded that while the meeting was held by and for the communities, attendance was open to all parties, implying that PROFEPA had consciously chosen not to attend. He also noted that WiLDCOAST was currently developing a plan to hold a joint training session to better equip PROFEPA and the Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) in their efforts toward monitoring sea turtle populations. The following day the conference concluded with workshops on: Sea Turtle Identification, Procedures and Reporting for Stranded Turtles, Basic Research Techniques, Eco-Tourism, and Environmental Education.

In summary, the meeting brought to light several distinct themes. The first of these, and most germane to the successful development of the Network itself, is the importance of local buy-in and participation. Without the dedicated work of local fishermen and residents, efforts towards sea turtle conservation in the Californias would undoubtedly fail. WiLDCOAST and the Network have developed an effective model achieving regional environmental gains by working at the local level. The second theme is that successful sea turtle conservation remains dependent upon the four-pronged assault of nesting site protection, protection of feeding and developmental sites, community education, and government participation. This leads into the third theme of institutional failure. In the end, Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can only go so far in filling the vacuum created by ineffective government agencies. Without adequate resources, agencies such as PROFEPA will remain crippled, and altogether unable to fulfill their mandate of enforcing environmental regulations. The last theme of the meeting is that in addition to being a cultural issue, in the end, sea turtle conservation is an economic problem. Without development of alternative, sustainable development options, turtle poaching will continue until ultimately, the populations collapse. Those who make and influence policy should keep in mind each of these themes when attempting to address the issue of sea turtle conservation.

For more information on sea turtles, WiLDCOAST,
and the Sea Turtle Network of the Californias, visit www.wildcoast.net

Chris Pesenti is Co-Director of Pro Peninsula, a San Diego based nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental preservation of Baja California through capacity building of local organizations. Chris can be reached at cpesenti@ucsd.edu


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