COMMENTARY: Path of the Sea Turtle

One man in Mexico tries to save the dwindling turtle populations.

All eight sea turtle species are listed as endangered.
© www.savetheseaturtles.org

Rene Pinal was inspired to help sea turtles when he first witnessed baby sea turtles being born on the beach near his ranch. Pinal's Rancho Punta San Cristobal estate is a three-and-a-half mile stretch of protected beaches and lands located on the Pacific Coast of Baja, Mexico. At the time in 1982, sea turtles were first listed as endangered and Mexico received money from the World Bank to study and remediate the sea turtle's decline, but resources were limited. Biologists worked on the shoreline, including Pinal's land, to determine what was needed to help the declining populations. When funds ran dry, Pinal took over the job of helping the sea turtles. In 1995, he founded the nonprofit Association for the Protection of the Environment and the Marine Turtle in Southern Baja (ASUPMATOMA), receiving the permits and support necessary to continue research.

Sea turtles have inhabited tropical and subtropical seas throughout the world for over 100 million years. There are eight sea turtle species worldwide, with seven living and breeding on the Pacific coast of Mexico. All eight species are listed as endangered. The turtles play key roles in marine and shoreline habitats. In the oceans, sea turtles are one of the very few creatures that eat sea grass, maintaining the grass" health, which then becomes a breeding site for many species of fish. Sea turtles also contribute to beach and sand dune vegetation. Nutrients from hatched turtle eggs allow vegetation to grow on the dunes, which helps prevent erosion.

Worldwide, sea turtle populations continue to decline. In Mexico, and some areas of South America, turtle meat and eggs are considered delicacies. As many as 35,000 turtles are killed each year by poachers in Mexico alone. Nets used in shrimp trawling and fishing also cause sea turtle deaths. The turtles become tangled in the nets and are unable to reach the surface to breathe.

Pinal says "Mexico's environmental protection ideas are 20 to 30 years behind the U.S. They don't have the consciousness." ASUPMATOMA has implemented educational programs targeting 6th and 7th grade children. The program educates the kids on the sea turtles, allowing them to handle baby sea turtles, name them and then release them into the ocean. Pinal says the program makes them aware of the environment and their natural resources. Fisherman camps have not been as receptive. "We were not successful with fisherman camps," he says, "because we were taking away their way of life. We got them through the kids, because the kids tell their parents not to kill the turtles anymore," Pinal says.

Beach development is having a large impact on sea turtle populations. Each year, sea turtles return to the same beach locations to nest and they require beaches with specific temperatures in order to ensure proper development and hatching of the eggs. If the beaches are developed they may be left with nowhere to nest, or their nesting locations may be threatened by human activity.

Specific protected beach locations are critical for proper sea turtle hatchings.
© www.savetheseaturtles.org

The last pristine three-mile stretch of coastline in Baja on the Pacific coast of Mexico is now being threatened by resort developments. Pinal has lost over 700-acres of his 2,000-acre ranch to developers in what he says was an illegal seizure of his property. The land includes important hatching grounds, which Pinal is unable to access due to the seizure. His mission now is not only to warn the public about the sea turtles but also to draw attention to the corruption in Mexico surrounding the seizure of his land. "Perhaps through public opinion and interest these public officials will be reprimanded or stopped, because I cannot work freely with my land being taken away," Pinal says.

The San Cristobal Nature Preserve is open to visitors year-round, but the best time to visit with biologists and release hatchlings to the sea is September through November. Pinal encourages people to visit and knows "there is nothing like being there, and the most exciting thing is being able to see a baby turtle walking toward the ocean."

CONTACT: ASUPMATOMA

JENNIFER SANTISI is an editorial intern at E.