Now that the wetlands and sea turtles of the Gulf of Mexico have been devastated by the BP oil spill, our work to protect the Bay of Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve of El Salvador has become more critical than ever. The area contains one of the largest remaining tracts of wetland mangrove forest in the Western Hemisphere and is a crucial nesting site for four species of sea turtles, including the most endangered sea turtle species in the world, the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill.
Sea turtles that nest in El Salvador have, until recently, had very little prospects for survival. Hundreds of local families have depended for years on collecting sea turtle eggs that they sell to middlemen who, in turn, sell them to high-end urban restaurants as a delicacy. A recent government ban on the sale of these eggs seems to have only driven up demand for them on the black market.
But there is a ray of hope. The community-run sea turtle hatchery program started in 2001, with support from EcoViva and other international partners, is showing its first major signs of success this year. Currently, five hatcheries along the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula provide a place for local families to legally sell sea turtle eggs for the same price they receive on the market. Since the program began, at least 750,000 baby sea turtles have been hatched and released.
Oscar Carranza, the local marine biologist overseeing the project, recently reported to us that a new influx of turtles, many of them very young, has been seen laying eggs this year on local beaches. Since it takes eight to nine years for sea turtles to reach gestational age, there is reason to believe that many of these are the very first turtles who were released by the hatcheries coming back, at last, to nest.
Ultimately, local families need a viable alternative to selling turtle eggs to survive. With support from EcoViva, the Mangrove Association is beginning to provide training and support to these families so they can get involved in organic farming, sustainable aquaculture and community-run ecotourism initiatives as better ways to make a living.
We envision a day when, hundreds of sea turtles will peacefully swim onto the beaches of the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula at night to make their nests. Local parents will take their children on a moonlit walk not to show them how to collect eggs, but simply to witness the marvel of wildlife before their eyes.
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