Last Friday, community members celebrated conservation victories at the first Sea Turtle Festival in Isla Montecristo. Video credit: Jake Ratner.
Celebrating conservation victories
On January 27, the Mangrove Association and EcoViva, with the support of FIAES and Izote, hosted the first annual Sea Turtle Festival to celebrate the efforts of the community of Isla Montecristo and surrounding villages to protect sea turtle populations in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The event included a soccer tournament, traditional food, fun games for kids, and a raffle with prizes.
We arrived on the beach in Isla Montecristo just in time to witness the release of 600 olive ridley sea turtle hatchlings to the ocean. About 100 excited community members attended, many the wives and children of the turtle egg collectors, or tortugueros, who weeks before had collected the eggs from which the hatchlings emerged. Participants gently cradled the tiny sea turtles in their hands, whispering well wishes into the spray of the pounding surf as they set them down in the sand. We watched in awe as the turtle’s instinct kicked in and they set off for the waves with determination. This continued until the last of the hatchlings disappeared into the ocean, and we hoped the little creatures would be able to defy the odds and live long enough to return to this very same beach to nest and contribute to the survival of a species in peril.
A species in danger of extinction
Although the olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), locally know as golfina, is the most abundant sea turtle in the world, it is still listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List because the global population is on the decline, despite decades of conservation efforts. The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) categorizes the olive ridley as “threatened” with a breeding population on the Pacific coast of Mexico considered “endangered.” The global olive ridley population is also listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES); Appendix I indicates those species threatened with extinction that require the greatest level of protection, including a permanent ban on international trade.
On a national level, the Salvadoran Ministry of the Environment in 2009 declared a total and permanent ban on the extraction, sale, and consumption of any products derived from sea turtles, including eggs, bones, meat, and jewelry and ornaments made from their shells. Despite these protections, the global olive ridley sea turtle population has declined more than 30% over the past 2-3 generations. We urgently need conservation efforts to save this species from extinction.
The olive ridley reaches sexual maturity at an average age of 13 years. A nesting female will typically nest several years in a row, and lays one to three nests containing 100 to 110 eggs each per season. This species is noted for the unique survival strategy it has evolved, in which dozens or hundreds of turtles nest in massive aggregations known as arribadas. This strategy of “predator swamping” is thought to be effective because predators are overwhelmed when, 45 to 65 days of incubation later, hatchlings venture out into the ocean by the thousands. While Isla Montecristo doesn’t experience arribadas as large as those known to occur in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, they can still receive up to 60 females a night at the height of the nesting season.
Throughout their life cycle, sea turtles face numerous threats. The unsustainable harvest of sea turtle eggs for human consumption is widespread and severely compromises conservation efforts. Despite laws banning poaching, egg extraction often approaches 100% on unprotected nesting beaches. High predation rates on hatchlings and juveniles result in very low survival rates to adulthood, making the harvest of eggs all the more threatening.
The list of other factors that contribute to the continued decline of the species is long: habitat loss, pollution and marine debris, sea level rise affecting nesting beaches, unregulated development, incidental capture in fishing gear, killing of adults for human consumption and ornaments, temperature changes both in the ocean and during egg incubation, ocean current shifts, increased severe weather events, artificial lighting, and invasive, non-native vegetation. Climate change impacts are likely to increase the vulnerability of sea turtle populations.
Local communities & international supporters collaborate
In an effort to conserve olive ridley populations in the Eastern Pacific, more than a decade ago EcoViva teamed up with partners from the Mangrove Association, the government of El Salvador, FIAES, Izote, and the Wildlife Forever Fund to establish a community-run sea turtle hatchery in Isla Montecristo. The program employs local tortugueros, who in the past relied on the illegal collection and sale of sea turtle eggs for their livelihoods, to incubate and release over 100,000 olive ridley hatchlings per year – one of the highest release quantities in the country.
The tortugueros from Isla Montecristo and surrounding villages are organized into communal cooperatives that take turns patrolling the beaches during the nesting season. Once a female has finished making a nest and laying eggs, the tortugueros carefully relocate the eggs to the nursery, where they are protected and monitored until they hatch. Hatchery staff check temperatures throughout the day to ensure ideal incubation conditions and keep guard at night to prevent poachers from illegally harvesting eggs.
Tortugueros are compensated for their conservation efforts in cash payments as well as in contributions to a communal fund that they use to finance alternative income-generating projects, such as a sustainable fishing cooperative and a locally-owned bakery.
What’s even more impressive about this model of community-led conservation is that it is helping propel a shift in people’s attitudes toward sea turtles. Those who before might have been indifferent to sea turtles are now leaders in their protection.
Every effort to protect sea turtles is important. The Sea Turtle Festival highlights that we all have a part to play in making sure that these incredible creatures don’t disappear.