On Wednesday, August 16, three dead sea turtles washed up on the beach in Isla Montecristo near our partners’ community-run turtle conservation hatchery. How did they end up there?
The call came during the dawn hours of August 15th. The sky was beginning to lighten and the sea was calm and quiet. Geovanny was tending to the fire outside the hut that serves as a base for the operations of the sea turtle conservation program in Isla Montecristo, an isolated village tucked deep in the mangroves along the mouth of the Lempa River. The call came from one of the dozen or so tortugueros, or community sea turtle egg collectors, who scour several miles of coastline every night during nesting season. They bring the eggs they collect to Geovanny, who counts them and carefully buries them in the hatchery, where he will stand watch, monitor the temperature of the sand, and release the sea turtle hatchlings some 40 days later. “Hermano, we just found three dead sea turtles washed up on the beach,” said the voice on the other end of the line. Geovanny asked their location, and told the tortuguero he was on his way.
Sea turtles play a vital role in ocean and coastal ecosystems across the globe. They are a keystone species, a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend; when keystone species disappear, ecosystems change drastically and may eventually collapse. Sea turtles maintain healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs, keep marine food webs in check, and provide vital nutrients on nesting beaches. Sea turtles eat jellyfish, for instance, and removing sea turtles from the food web can cause jellyfish populations to explode.
Unfortunately, sea turtle populations are severely threatened worldwide. All seven sea turtle species in existence are listed under CITES Appendix I, which list species that are most threatened with extinction. Continued threats to sea turtles include habitat loss, pollution and marine debris, unregulated development, incidental capture in fishing gear, and climate change. As sea turtle population levels decline, so does their ability to perform the ecosystems services that help maintain healthy oceans.
Geovanny hung up the phone and immediately began to organize. He deployed the Montecristo branch of the Local Environmental Observation Network (ROLA, by its acronym in Spanish), volunteers tasked with monitoring and reporting local environmental issues. He then called the Salvadoran police and was soon accompanied by two officers stationed in the community. They made their way to the location of the stranding to take photographs and analyze the dead sea turtles. The bodies showed lacerations and bruising – signs of being caught in fishing nets. A cut along the right side of one of the sea turtles between the carapace and the body indicates fishers cut open the female turtle to extract her eggs and then threw her body back into the ocean. Geovanny concluded that the cause of death was asphyxiation and the evidence pointed to fishers using irresponsible fishing techniques as the culprit.
Historically, industrial shrimp trawlers have accounted for more sea turtle deaths than all other human activities combined (Lutcavage et al. 1997). According to a source who used to work in the commercial shrimp fishery off the coast of El Salvador, a single industrial shrimp trawler can kill up to 15 or 20 sea turtles per night during the nesting season. By Salvadoran law, industrial fishing boats are not allowed to fish within three miles of the coast, where they’re most likely to accidentally catch sea turtles returning to nesting beaches. The area where the dead sea turtles were found, the mouth of the Lempa River, is also a marine protected area where industrial fishing of any kind is prohibited. Industrial shrimp trawlers are also required to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs), which allow turtles caught inside fishing nets to escape and avoid drowning.
Our source claimed that both of these laws are systematically ignored by the fishing fleet. During my time in El Salvador I have seen many shrimp boats with fishing nets deployed very close to the shore in this region, not even a mile away from the beach. According to our source, boat captains are warned ahead of time of upcoming inspections by the national fisheries service, CENDEPESCA. They respond by moving offshore and deploying their TEDs, thereby avoiding being caught by the authorities and paying fines.
“Shrimp fishers’ non-compliance with TED laws is a chronic problem occurring throughout the world”, says Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. According to many fishers I’ve spoken with in El Salvador, the sentiment is that the TEDs allow too many fish to escape and this is why they do not like to deploy them. Workers on industrial shrimp boats are paid meager wages and any fish that are caught as bycatch are split up amongst the crew and taken home for personal consumption.
“It’s a shame,” lamented Geovanny, later that day. “All of our efforts, thwarted by the economic interests and illegal activities of the industrial fishing fleet.” This was the fourth incident of sea turtle deaths this season, which only just began a few weeks ago. Geovanny personally watches over the hatchery every night during the months-long nesting season, and dedicates immense time and energy to ensure that as many sea turtle eggs as possible are rescued from the black market and given the chance to hatch. To see all that work wash ashore in the form of a dead female sea turtle, unable to perform the function that is essential to the survival of this extremely vulnerable species, is heartbreaking and angering.
“We are here, waiting,” he said. “This is a call to the Salvadoran authorities to redouble your efforts – to coordinate meaningfully with your strategic allies within the local community. We are here, ready to take action. Let’s come together and elaborate an action plan to prevent these unfortunate events. We need to strengthen environmental awareness and education programs and promote better fishing practices and sustainable natural resource management.”
In April 2017, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), launched an ambitious new program to install GPS devices on 46 industrial fishing boats in order to monitor compliance with zoning laws.Failure to enable the GPS devices or tampering with them is punishable by law. It is still too early to tell if this program will be effective in regulating the fishery, but it is a major step in the right direction for conservation policy, as long as compliance can be enforced.
When asked what possible solutions exist to address to the problem of sea turtle mortality, our source suggested empowering local authorities, such as park rangers and community environmental police officers, to enforce compliance among the industrial fleet. He said that government officials who are from the cities don’t have a stake in the long-term sustainability of coastal resources, whereas local community leaders are directly dependent on the health of the ecosystem and have the incentive to protect it from overexploitation.
Efforts to reduce sea turtle bycatch in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery began in the 1970s and took decades to become effective. It took until 1989 before federal regulations went into effect requiring widespread use of TEDs. The law further requires the U.S. to ban the importation of commercially harvested shrimp unless the State Department has certified that the exporting country has a regulatory program comparable to that of the United States for reducing the incidental capture of sea turtles in shrimp trawls.
Although Salvadoran laws comply with these export requirements, the lack of effective local enforcement means that many violations by the shrimping industry go unpunished and sea turtle bycatch continues to be a major problem. In 1998, a study estimated that the Costa Rican shrimp fleet catches approximately 20,000 turtles per year (PDF). We do not have concrete data for the level of mortality of adult breeding sea turtles in El Salvador, but based on community observations and reports, the numbers are likely comparable.
The communities we work with have made great strides in sea turtle conservation. In 2016, the Montecristo hatchery diverted 118,851 eggs from the black market and released 107,126 live hatchlings to the ocean. Our partners, including Geovanny, work closely with local and national authorities to advocate for better conservation policies to protect sea turtles and the ecosystems they depend on.
Sea turtles are one of many natural treasures that we stand to lose if we don’t do something about the threats their survival. By supporting EcoViva, you are helping us protect this beautiful creature and its environment. Donate today.