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Salvadoran Bay Breeds Hope for Sea Turtles

A baby olive Ridley turtle makes its way to the sea. Credit: Luis Romero/IPS

ISLA LA PIRRAYA, Usulután, El Salvador, Sep 11 2012 (IPS) - El Salvador’s Jiquilisco Bay, a tiny hidden corner of the Pacific Ocean, is becoming a haven for endangered sea turtles.

“The local residents say that it was a wave 10 metres high, and it washed away everything,” ecologist Emilio León told Tierramérica*, in the aftermath of a tremor on the Pacific coast and the resulting swell that destroyed numerous nurseries with 45,000 turtle eggs on Aug. 26.

The greatest damage was suffered by Méndez Island, south of the department of Usulután, and particularly Jiquilisco Bay, the preferred spawning grounds of the four sea turtle species that visit El Salvador: hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), leatherback turtles (Dermochelis coriácea), olive Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivácea) and green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas agassizii).

The nurseries destroyed on Méndez Island are run by the non-governmental Zoological Foundation of El Salvador (FUNZEL). Due to the importance of Jiquilisco Bay for sea turtles, various environmental organisations are involved in conservation projects there.

“We can’t do anything against the force of nature, except to continue working to rebuild what was destroyed,” said León, director of the FUNZEL Sea Turtle Conservation Programme.

The quake, measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale, was barely felt by the population, but wiped out months of work to preserve the four turtle species, all of them in danger of extinction.

The conservation activities involve local authorities, national and foreign environmental groups, and fisherfolk from the region, who maintain incubators for turtle eggs and promote mechanisms for community involvement in their care.

“There’s one over there,” says Obed Rodríguez in his small boat in the middle of the sea, pointing to the head of a hawksbill turtle peeking out from the water. The turtle emerges and is fully visible for a few seconds, then plunges back underwater.

Rodríguez, a fisherman, forms part of a team that has been carrying out a sea turtle breeding programme since May. The programme is sponsored by the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO), a regional project based in the United States devoted to research and protection of hawksbill turtles in this part of the Pacific.

“This is the area where the hawksbill turtles nest, so it isn’t unusual to see them swimming around here,” Rodríguez told Tierramérica.

Of all four species, the greatest threat looms over the hawksbill, a critically endangered species. These turtles are hunted for their meat and eggs, but above all for their multicoloured shells, the primary source of the tortoiseshell material used for decorative objects, combs, eyeglass frames and jewellery.

Between 200 and 300 female hawksbill turtles continue to nest on the beaches of the Pacific coast between Mexico and Peru, and half of them lay their eggs in Jiquilisco Bay, according to studies conducted by ICAPO and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, a branch of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

There is no longer any incentive for fishers in El Salvador to sell turtle eggs to restaurants. Since 2009, there has been a total and permanent ban on trade in turtle eggs as well as their meat, oil, bones, shells and even dried specimens.

Rather than have turtle eggs seized from them by the authorities, local fisherfolk prefer to hand them over to the ICAPO project, which pays them 2.5 dollars for 14 eggs. A single nest can yield up to 160 eggs, said Rodríguez.

The penetration of the sea on the coasts of Usulatán is responsible for the characteristic shape on the Salvadoran map of this bay in the southeast. The local indigenous people called it Xiriualtique, or the bay of stars, because its calm waters reflected the starry night sky like a mirror.

The bay is also home to the country’s longest stretch of mangrove forests. In 2005, the area was included on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, and in 2007, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared it the Xiriualtique-Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve.

Little by little, its inhabitants have come to understand that the area needs to be preserved. But the many hotels in neighbouring areas pose a challenge to the capacity of the local population to protect it.

Nevertheless, last year a total of 1.7 million eggs were laid, and from these, 1.5 million baby turtles hatched and were released into the ocean, most of them hawksbills and olive Ridley turtles, the two most numerous species in the country, according to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.

In late August, French ocean explorer and documentary filmmaker Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the legendary Jacques Cousteau, arrived on these coasts to film a movie.

“It is not just a matter of filming the progress that has been made in the protection of sea turtles in El Salvador, but also of telling a story of hope,” said Cousteau at a press conference.

The non-governmental organisation he founded, Plant a Fish, and the local initiative it sponsors, Vivazul, began to work this year with communities on the beaches of El Amatal and Toluca, where corrals have been built to incubate up to 200,000 eggs and release the greatest number of baby turtles possible into the sea.

FUNZEL is pursuing a more ambitious goal: for the local population to organise its own economic activities around sea turtle conservation, without the intermediation of environmental organisations.

For example, communities could develop their own nurseries and charge tourists for the privilege of releasing a turtle into the ocean.

“We are already doing this through a pilot project on Méndez Island, and the idea is to expand it more and more,” said León. The price for this unique experience is seven dollars per visitor. “The future is promising,” he added.

* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.

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