De Machetes y Marsopas (About Machetes and Porpoises)

With unheard of ferocity, furtive hunters from the town of Santa Maria Tonameca, massacred 80 marine turtles on the beach of Escobilla, Oaxaca, one of the principal nesting sites for the Olive Ridley in Mexico, and in the world. Massive killings on this scale in the middle of the nesting season are bad news for the species, especially so after a campaign by the Grupo de los cien (Group of One Hundred, Mexico’s leading environmental organization, founded by Homero Aridjis), supported internationally by scientists and environmental groups. In May 1990, the country declared a total ban on the exploitation and commercialization of the seven species of marine turtle that lay their eggs on Mexican beaches. Since then, in Oaxaca alone, some 60,000 turtles have been killed annually, either legally or illegally.

One of the most infuriating things about the recent massacre in Escobilla is the brutality with which it was committed. Besides the criminal aspect (because the predatory mob was breaking the law), the killing was totally unnecessary, since the turtles were going to lay the eggs themselves and there is no way they had to kill them to rob the nests (which is also illegal). In any event, the killing one of the most ancient animals on Planet Earth, one that lived on after the dinosaurs were gone, is impressive for its lack of conscience.

After two days of watching the turtles floating close to shore, members of the Federal Prosecutors Office for Protection of the Environment (PROFEPA), Oaxaca, the Mexican Turtle Center (CMT) and the Ocean Ministry (SEMAR) realized that these were dead and mutilated turtles – not females about to come onto the beach to lay their eggs – when on August 6, the changing tide washed them up onto the sands of Escobilla. The decomposing carcasses showed exposed innards and blows to the skull and chest. The stomachs of some turtles had been ripped open by machetes, no doubt to extract eggs or meat. None showed signs of having being used for their skin and neither had they been caught in nets.

I remember before the decree of 1990 when, under cover of a legal quota of 80,000 Olive Ridleys in the market at San Agustinillo, the fishermen would kill up to double that number, often snapping off the fins to get the skin. Unable to swim, the turtles were abandoned on the beachfront or thrown back in the sea, suffering either a long death agony, becoming victims of sharks or drowning. Today the national and international commerce of turtle skin is forbidden, although the illegal traffic continues, and an enormous number die as incidental catches in the nets of fishing boats.

Turtle eggs are sold as a snack in bars and inns along the coast, in the market in Juchitan, in Tepito (a rough neighborhood in Mexico City) and the market of La Viga (major fish market in Mexico City) (the PROFEPA inspectors must surely know very well the vending places). The absurd belief that the eggs are an aphrodisiac is being effectively combated by the Wildcoast organization under the slogan, “my man has no need to eat turtle eggs”.

The Olive Ridley is a highly gregarious animal and can be observed in the open sea, sunbathing in large concentrations, or in pairs or swimming in groups. Their shoals are usually huge and offer a great nature show. During the nesting season, generally between July and February, they usually arrive six or seven times on the Mexican coasts, when up to 100,000 turtles come to lay their eggs on the beaches. With their rear fins the females dig holes in which to lay 80 to 100 eggs, covering the nest afterwards with sand. Then they turn around, are picked up by the waves and disappear again into the ocean.

Since 1990 I have fought for an ecotourism program in Escobilla, because the spectacle of the arrival of tens of thousands – which I’ve had the good fortune to witness – is so extraordinary and unique that national and international tourists could be charged a fairly high fee and the profits shared among the local communities. These would then have a stake in not killing the turtles that lay the golden eggs.

Four days after the discovery of the massacre, the massive arrival of the Olive Ridleys began. The authorities estimate that ten of thousands have laid their eggs. If news of the massacre had not been covered by the media, which caused international indignation, who knows how many turtles would have been murdered during this latest arrival, and how many nests would have been looted. Luckily the warning forced PROFEPA, SEMAR and the CMT to protect the turtles. Nevertheless, an in-depth investigation is needed to punish the predators, and to find out why those charged with protecting Escobilla were unaware of the barbarity being perpetrated under their noses. Mexico’s responsibility to protect the Olive Ridley has increased because the beach of Gahirmata in the Indian state of Orissa, where the largest arrivals in the world take place, is facing serious threats.

Previously marine turtles used to lay their on the beaches of the Gulf of California, but like many species in Gulf (also known as the Sea of Cortez), abundance has turned into scarcity, thanks to the devastating impact of fishing fleets, industrial as well as co-operatives. The depredation has been caused by an unbridled exploitation, the spawn of decades-old corruption together with a thirst for money with no concern whatsoever for the survival of marine life. Perhaps the number one victim in this body of water is the Vaquita, a tiny porpoise that lives in the Upper Gulf and whose population has been reduced to about 700 individuals, thanks to the use of gill nets and illegal small craft. Shrimp fishing in the Upper Gulf threatens finish off the Vaquita forever, because no animal or plant once extinct, has ever recovered.

Ocean Garden (OG) is the business that sells Mexican shrimp on the international market, and its value is, at least, 70,000,000 dollars. Constituted in 1957, OG currently belongs to the Banco Nacional de Commercio Exterior through its sister company Exportadoras Asociados. Through its management ranks have passed politicians of various persuasions and it now provides employment for 900 providers. As is often the case with privatizations many providers will lose their relationship with the company. OG purchases the catch from the owners of nearly 1000 boats, those that will be affected by the change of ownership. Three groups remain in the battle for the business plum: the multinational Agribands Purina, Martuna, belonging to Antonio Suarez, owner of Industrias Tunny, and Vinifos, a shrimp food producer and the group that represents the family of Eduardo Bours, the Governor of Sonora. Bours recently made it known that he did not want any more laws for environmental protection in his state. On August 15 they have to submit their applications, and the winner will be known before the end of the year.

The Natural Resources Council (NRDC) has been in talks for months with OG to reach an agreement that will protect the Vaquita and prevent the NRDC from having to launch a boycott of Mexican shrimp in the United States, the present market for 90% of shrimp from the Gulf of California. The objectives are to halt illegal fishing in order to reduce the incidental catches of Vaquitas to zero. As a first step, the fishermen must use nets above the six inches presently employed and which are responsible for 38% of the Vaquita mortality. A census of fishermen is to be carried out and unlicensed fishing stopped, draggers are to install mechanisms in their boats to prevent the death of incidental catches, and OG undertakes not to buy any shrimp obtained illegally. OG cannot deny the seriousness of the situation in the Upper Gulf, since it has admitted the decline of the resources. The unknown factor is to what extent would an agreement signed by OG and the NRDC be respected by the new owners of the privatized company? The fact that OG’s headquarters are in San Diego could help provide leverage for compliance, especially if they wish to avoid a boycott like the one carried out against Mexican tuna for the incidental death of dolphins (Antonio Suarez’ area of expertise). The shrimp season begins in September. For the Vaquite, is it going to be a death sentence, or a pardon?