COMMENTARY: The Blue Movement

Wallace J. Nichols Fights for Sea Turtles

"We are ocean, period. Seventy percent of the world is ocean and eighty percent of global biodiversity is in it. We need to take care of the ocean. No matter where we are, we depend on it."
—Wallace J. Nichols

Wallace J. Nichols does much of his turtle research in Baja California, Mexico.

For at least 150 million years, sea turtles have roamed the Earth’s oceans. This makes them at least 858 times older than the first Homo sapiens. Survivors of the mass extinction that wiped dinosaurs out, enduring lengthy travels along the sea and fighting heavy predation that results in survival statistics of about one in a thousand, they have managed to stay around. That is, until now. Out of the seven species of marine turtles in the world, six feature as endangered or critically endangered in the Red List of Threatened Species, a list compiled by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and updated every year with the best available scientific information. Humans bear direct responsibility.

Every stage in a turtle’s life is impacted by humans. Eggs are a traditional food believed to increase sexual potency, and are collected from nests in high numbers to satiate consumer demand. Those that survive egg poaching, an illegal activity in most countries, are actively hunted for their meat, skin and shells or captured incidentally by fishing fleets once they reach the adult and sub-adult phase. Trapped in shrimp nets, where they suffocate and drown, or hooked onto long-lines that target tuna, more than 400 thousand sea turtles are captured or injured each year. Adult females, capable of traveling more than 9,000 miles from feeding grounds to their natal beaches for laying eggs, are safe from off-shore fishing but threatened by coastal development. Construction along coastlines hinders nest making and can also affect hatchlings on their journey to sea. Often mistaking lights on coastal infrastructure for the bright horizon, they end up waddling in the wrong direction.

Characteristics of a sea turtle’s life history add to the already tenuous scenario. Sea turtles grow slowly, live very long and take a long time to reach reproductive maturity. This combination is a drawback for population recovery. It takes anywhere from 15 to 50 years for a new batch of turtles to be able to reproduce, so turtles hunted today, might take a human lifetime to be replaced. Meanwhile, they are still captured at rates that exceed replacement possibilities. So what hope is left? Policy for sea turtle conservation includes regulations for fishing nets to include TEDs (turtle exclusion devices), designation of world-wide protected beach areas for nesting and heavy fines for illegal egg poaching. But without proper community education and monitoring, compliance continues to be poor and declines in sea turtle numbers persist.

Here is where researchers like Dr. Wallace J. Nichols are needed. Nichols has turned a childhood fascination with sea turtles, formed during his upbringing on the Chesapeake Bay, into a career advocating for sea turtles. Dr. Nichols is Senior Scientist with Sea Turtles at the Ocean Conservancy, president of the International Sea Turtle Society, researcher for the California Academy of Sciences, and member of the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group. As if this trail of qualifications were not enough, he is also a collaborator for numerous organizations including Oceana, actively engaged in ocean advocacy, and Blue Ocean Institute, which combines scientific and artistic approaches to conservation. Involved in media as well, he has authored a children’s book as well as several articles and reports. He’s been featured on radio shows, produced TV documentaries and was a noted expert in Leonardo Di Caprio’s eco-documentary The 11th Hour.

A mix between a biologist, social scientist, activist, conservationist, writer, speaker and producer, this multitalented New Yorker has dedicated fifteen years of his life to a single mission: sea turtle conservation. And his efforts have seen fruit. Working with marine turtles and local communities in Baja, California and Mexico, where almost all species have representation, the program he leads has resulted in positive responses in population numbers and changes in local livelihoods to include more sustainable practices. The secret? Working closely with local communities, the ones formerly involved in hunting turtles and poaching eggs, who’ve now become dedicated to their protection. A firm believer that locals are both the problem and the solution, Nichols has focused efforts on changing social perspectives, introducing alternate sources of income and empowering communities to initiate their own conservation programs.

The only way to make things happen in the conservation realm is through collaboration. By involving the media, non-profit organizations and major role players, scientists like Dr. Nichols are creating a blue movement. They are opening the frontiers of their findings and earning our oceans a second chance for the future. Before giving a talk for Endangered Species Chocolate, a company founded to inspire proactive conservation efforts on threatened species and providing financial support to the Ocean Conservancy, while producing premium quality, fair trade, organic chocolate, Wallace J. Nichols gave E some time.

E magazine: Sea turtle conservation is a big issue and a gigantic enterprise. It involves numerous life stages, countries and communities. Where have you chosen to target your initiatives and why?

Nichols: The SEE Program (Sea Turtle Ecological Expeditions) that involves providing fishing communities an alternative source of income is our most important current initiative, because fishermen are out there, interacting with sea turtles, collecting their eggs and catching them in their nets. We can reduce pressure on turtles by putting together turtle conservation and turtle-watching tourism, giving fishermen an alternative income. For this, we have chosen to focus on hotspots were turtles are extremely endangered and conservation is needed the most. Our current areas of focus are Costa Rica, Baja California in Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago. Main target species are Loggerheads and Green turtles in Baja, Leatherbacks, Olive Ridley and Green in Costa Rica and Leatherbacks in Trinidad. Hotspots were picked on the basis of conservation need and infrastructure, because we need to assure that people can get to these areas and work there.

Recent scientific suggestions indicate that the pelagic (open ocean) stage is the most important in determining sea turtle population persistence. Should we concentrate efforts here?

Green Turtles are now abundant in Hawaii, thanks to recovery efforts.

Actually, our tourism programs involve these life stages. Sub-adult pelagic turtles get caught in fish nets and now we have fishermen that would much rather turn their industry around and take people turtle watching, if they come. A change in lifestyle towards other economic activities that can replace destructive fishing is not a new idea. However, we are filling in a big gap in conservation tourism. People all around the world want to go see turtles, but few organizations have an interest in this. Tourism companies are really the only ones targeting the industry, but they only go to easy-to-reach places, leaving behind the ones that require effort. So that’s where the Ocean Conservancy’s SEE program comes in, to fill in these gaps. And this is done with a mindful approach, taking into account potential ecotourism impacts.

Is involvement with local communities crucial to your conservation work in Mexico? And, did you find this

work hard being a "gringo"?

In a lot of places, work with local communities is absolutely necessary. Some other places need to involve legislation and policy, and these initiatives can be done from cities like Mexico City and Washington D.C. But frontline conservation initiatives with communities on the ground offers a different set of tools and is an approach that needs to be taken if we want to change behavior. For example, with by-catch issues, very important in sea turtle conservation, working with communities has proved very successful. Scaling up from local initiatives can be a problem though, and there lies the challenge.

About being an outsider, you would think it would make working with communities harder. But it works to my advantage in a way. I speak fluent Spanish and people may not expect that. I also treat people really well, with lots of respect and involve people in my work that would otherwise have no chance of getting involved with these campaigns. That overrides any initial expectations. I still run into problems, but I have never taken the approach of telling others what to do, not at work, not at home, and that helps a lot. I prefer to talk about things, to put ideas on the table and discuss them, and I find this approach works.

People considered the "enemy" so to speak, don’t really want turtles to go extinct either; it’s in their interest to preserve the populations. So you talk to them and ask, "How many turtles do you and your family eat in a year?", and they say, for instance, "10," and you say, "Well, what if you ate seven?" And they say "Sure, we can do that." And so it goes. It is a process however, and it takes a long time. But then, when after years of conversations they say, "You know what, I’m going to help," then that is the remarkable thing. Being an outsider has advantages. I am a novelty and I have the benefit of the doubt. You just need to handle yourself well, respect others and keep at it.

Tell me a little bit about Grupo Tortuguero, the grassroots conservation network that you co-founded.

Well, at every location of the SEE Program, we have at least one local partner. In Baja California, Grupo Tortuguero is that partner. It is a non-profit organization made by fishermen and locals.

You work with very charismatic animals, on which work has been going on for a long time in many different fronts and countries. Still, six out of seven species of turtles are listed as endangered or critically endangered in the IUCN Red List: so, first, what do you credit this to? Inefficiency of campaigns, lack of focus on adequate life stage, or qualities inherent to sea turtle life history, like long life, slow growth and late maturity? And second, how do you remain positive? Tell me a success story.

It is a little bit of all these things you mention. All factors contribute. Maturity can be as long as 30 years, so you don’t really get a short time response to conservation efforts, you can’t see that much change in the population in just a few years. But there are good trends in some populations and this is hopeful. The lesson is that if you do your work right and for a long time, turtle populations can recover. Examples include the Kemp Ridley in the Gulf of Mexico and Green turtles in the Caribbean, which are doing quite well now. Green turtles are also pretty well protected in Hawaii and populations are coming back. So some populations are experiencing recovery. We need to learn from those and repeat the initiatives that work.

That said, fisheries are still going on, fishing technologies are getting better, the scale of gear is huge and there’s still a lot that we don’t know about the interactions between turtles and fisheries in the high seas around the world. This remains an area that we have to work more in, and can be part of the reason for non-recovery of populations. Recently, there is also speculation that plastics and marine debris are another source of mortality. This is again poorly documented and constitutes an area that needs work.

About positive stories, the recovery of sea turtle populations that I have mentioned and the case of Green turtles in Hawaii, which are now abundant where they used to be scarce, are global examples. In a more personal or particular way, there are the changes I see among the fishermen I work with directly. Their personal evolution from only thinking about today and not caring about the future, to becoming responsible fishermen, driving conservation movements and becoming effective leaders, that to me is the most successful story.

The Kemp Ridley populations are returning to the Gulf of Mexico.

You seem to be one of the few positive voices in the environmental movement. Do you think we have a shot at changing the environmental scene at this point or are we left with trying to influence younger crowds? How do you see major changes coming, via policy makers or citizen action?

The connection between turtles and the wider environmental movement is clear. As you have said, they are charismatic animals, so it’s easy to get people excited and then talk about other issues like global warming, garbage or endangered species in general. And you can connect sea turtles with issues on land and in the water.

Changes happening now are pretty amazing on many different levels. I think of it as the ocean revolution. The media has become more interested in environmental issues and this is a reflection of people’s interest. Politicians will follow. I don’t expect policy to lead in making the changes possible; rather, it will follow because people demand it.

We need to make major policy shifts, major shifts in the way we do business and in how people live. This is much more likely to happen as people become more aware, and as people like you at E magazine and others, contribute to getting the word out. Every magazine has had a green issue this year. Last year wasn’t the same. CNN has major investments in programming on the environment and a number of films have come out. There is a movement in the right direction, with a lot of different strategies and angles.

It seems like visual media is the most effective way of getting to people. A combination of factors including undivided attention, movement and music, makes it the best media for getting to people’s feelings. Do you agree? And, do you think this strategy works equally in first and second world countries?

I agree that visual media is very important for the reasons you mentioned, but it is key that it lands on top of something. Really, a great environmental film alone won’t do the job. Media, conversations with officials, and other sorts of communication together, are the ones that can do the job.

My parents saw the film The 11th Hour, and, sure, they were pretty impacted and thought, "Well, that’s disturbing. What can we do?" but then said, "Let’s go get dinner," and forgot. I sent them articles, asked them questions, commented with them on the film, and then they began to make changes in their own lives. They also made changes around them. My father is the mayor of his town and he has now influenced the community and is making changes all the time. Multiple streams that support each other are needed. A film needs to be supported by print media, by neighbors talking about issues; connecting these sources is what creates impact and action. But this is a lot harder to do. In marketing it is well

known that for a product to do well, a marketing mix has to be pulled through. People need to see the product as part of the world and what is going on around them, and then they want to be part of it. And this is happening with the environment.

Celebrities and rock stars are talking about it and getting involved, magazines and newspapers are dealing with environmental issues; schools are including environmental issues in their programs. The environment is present in conversations with parents, and at work people chat about climate change. All these things add up to the social change we are hoping for. Also, there is now investment of money, of major capital, into green technologies and sustainable energy resources. This wasn’t happening before, and I think things will continue to move down this path.

I see separation between countries and communities as a major problem for conservation. Do you see a stronger collaborative movement between disciplines, communicators, scientists and managers in the marine world? Is the secretive scientist working in the lab on its way to extinction?

I’ve seen that change you are talking about happening. When I started doing field work, scientists frowned at the idea of spending time with fishermen. They were just interested in science, and didn’t understand why they would invite fishermen to the conversation table. The problem is that academia is driven by publications and it is very difficult to publish about cooperation initiatives to conservation in peer-reviewed journals, unless you are in social science. These social topics are wasted time in the scientific realm. It is challenging because that’s the currency of academia, to publish papers, not solving problems.

We need a hybrid approach involving the public, non-profit organizations, local communities, policy makers and academics. There is a role for academics. When you need scientific information, a scientist should do it, when you need to communicate results, a communicator should do it, when you need policy changing, the government officials should do it; and then we need people that can put all these together.

The team approach is important. We need people that know how to build teams and networks and solve problems. We shouldn’t expect scientists to become excellent communicators and policy makers; we need them to remain good at what they do. Underneath, there has to be willingness from everyone involved, to contribute and solve problems. This is happening more and more. People are figuring out how to work as a team and as a network. Again, building trust and respect is a key component.

Describe a normal day at the Ocean Conservancy, what exactly do you do?

There is really no typical day. Today, for example, I am here with Endangered Species Chocolate to give a talk and to thank them for their support to the Ocean Conservancy. Later on, I have a meeting with a board of trustees and then I travel home. Monday I am back at the office in Santa Cruz. So it’s really a mix of activities; making speeches, writing, going out on the ocean, taking people out on the ocean, talking to school groups, organizing events, writing scientific papers. It is a very hybrid position. My role in all of this is to build teams and to keep the connections going.

How to keep up with work load, juggle such multiple tasks and still have time for talks to local people? Where do you prioritize?

I work with great people who are great at what they do; day to day managers, great at managing, fishermen, students. My goal is to get the word out. I work with excellent journalists and filmmakers, and that’s part of the approach. I just have a general sense of what’s worthwhile and what’s not. But you never know, sometimes your best move was where you least expected it. I just go on my gut instinct and think out of the box. I try things other people are generally not interested in, like for example challenging the Pope to help protect sea turtles and working with chocolate companies.

Conservation should be a really good experience, like eating chocolate, watching a film, hanging out with your buddies, singing and dancing. We need to connect doing the right thing with feeling good; that’s how you get social change. We can’t rely just on bad news to motivate people. We are not going to solve issues in this way. Conservation efforts have to be combined with fun, like eating fair trade chocolate and knowing that it contributes to the communities where the chocolate comes from and to saving endangered species.

What does J stand for?It’s a secret
. Joseph. My father and grandfather had the same name and my mother didn’t like Wallace or Joseph, so she called me J.

CONTACTS: Wallace J. Nichol’s Blog; Ocean Conservancy; Grupo Tortuguero; Endangered Species Chocolate; IUCN Red List

KATHERINE CURE is an E intern and marine biologist from Colombia.

Animal Rights National Conference 2018