Involving communities in sea turtle conservation
The black turtle is a lesser known subpopulation of the more familiar green turtle (Chelonia myda). The population was the subject of a long taxonomic debate, now finally settled by genetic testing which determined that the Pacific population of black sea turtle was the same species as the widely distributed green turtle. Despite having species status taken away, however, the fact remains that this turtle population is endangered, and is classified as such on the IUCN Red List.
Baja California Peninsula in northwest Mexico has several bays and lagoon systems along the coast, including Laguna San Ignacio, which provide important feeding and developmental habitat for black sea turtles. This lagoon, which stretches 16km into the deserts of Mexico, is part of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve created in 1988. The reserve is Mexico's largest protected area and includes three grey whale sanctuaries established in 1972. The threatened reserve is far from a haven though, as there is a great risk that in the near future it will fail to protect and maintain its biodiversity. The main threats include agriculture, overuse of groundwater reserves, extensive grazing, illegal fishing, and legal and illegal hunting. Future potential threats include large tourism projects and mining activities.
The small population around San Ignacio lagoon depends on whale watching tourism and fishing as their primary economic activities. Most of the year, fishing predominates and turtles are a welcome bycatch for legal fisheries targeting stingray, halibut and other fish, as well as being targeted by illegal poachers. In total, between 8,000 and 33,000 black turtles are caught for human consumption each year in Baja California Sur.
The San Ignacio turtles are severely under threat and their survival depends on improving our knowledge of population status, habitat use and foraging behavior. With this information, scientists can begin to develop ideas and strategies for conservation. Also key to the success of black turtle conservation will be involvement of the local community and their increased appreciation of the value of the species alive rather than dead.
The Earthwatch project, Tracking Baja's Black Sea Turtles, based in San Ignacio lagoon, is led by an international team of scientists - Dr. Volker Koch of Universidad Autonomá de Baja California Sur in Mexico; Dr. William Megill from the University of Bath, UK; and Dr. Wallace “J” Nichols from the California Academy of Science, US. The goal of this project is to conserve and recover a healthy black sea turtle stock in San Ignacio lagoon. In addition to researching the turtles and the San Ignacio ecosystem, the project aims to strengthen the local community's sense of ownership and responsibility for their marine environment by involving them in research and outreach activities.
The project, therefore, has three components. The first is scientific research, through which the scientists are trying to understand the behavioral ecology of black sea turtles in this little-known part of their range. They are looking at abundance, movements, use of habitat and benthic biodiversity (species living on the seafloor such as attached species like coral, seagrass and seaweed, or those that move around like crabs or worms). Using the datasets to assemble a detailed, multi-layered Geographic Information System (GIS) model will enable the scientists to highlight which parts of the lagoon are used by turtles for feeding and nursery areas, to identify areas of high conservation importance. The research is also measuring sea turtle mortality rates and quantifying the main causes. This is important because of the high rates of bycatch and illegal poaching in the lagoon and will help to determine whether poaching or habitat degradation is the greater factor causing a decline in numbers.
The second component of the project is community engagement, a program to help local people develop economic alternatives to fishing, and therefore relieve the pressure from impoverished resources in and around the lagoon. Initiatives include using existing ecotourism facilities and working with the local Ejidos to develop new agriculture and aquaculture initiatives. The Ejidos are local landowners' cooperatives from the surrounding towns.
Finally, the third component of the project is encouraging locals and visitors to learn about the challenges and the importance of sea turtle conservation, and the broader need for habitat conservation within and outside the lagoon.
The project began in 2008 and runs three expedition teams a year of up to 12 people. Volunteers become involved hands-on, carrying out activities such as tracking the turtles with GPS and sonar to help monitor their underwater behavior, capturing and tagging the turtles, and inputting results into the database. Earthwatch volunteers have also worked with the scientists and local conservation groups to raise awareness in the local community.
After just one year, the project is already successful. One of the first actions was to encourage the extension of the ecotourism season in the lagoon. Normally, whale watching takes place from January to April, but the success of the turtle project in bringing international volunteers to the area has shown the local community that opportunities for scientific tourism are in demand, and they can do it year-round, encouraging more income into the area. As a result, the local community is becoming increasingly aware of how turtles could generate income if kept alive and thriving. A sea turtle-based tourism business in the lagoon is being modeled on the successful and sustainable whale-watching industry that already exists in the lagoon. This is only a small part of a larger project studying the effectiveness of ecotourism as a conservation tool throughout the entire Baja peninsula. In addition, two visitor centers are being designed and built with one of the local landowners' cooperatives, Ejido Luis Echeverria, and the tourism company Ecoturismo Kuyima. These centers will reach out to locals and visitors to explain the importance of conservation in the lagoon. If successful, ecotourism has the potential to employ a large number of people from the local community, thus contributing to the local economy and livelihoods.
In the future, results from both the scientific research and the community-linked conservation strategy will inform efforts by other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Mexican government agencies in conserving the turtles and their habitats nationwide. The GIS will be an important resource once completed, as the data will offer an understanding of the turtles' habitat use by determining hotspots to help inform monitoring schemes.
As well as the turtle based research and education, the Earthwatch project works in partnership with Ejido Luis Echevierra Alvarez, and the NGO US/Mexican Wildcoast, helping to engage the local community directly to develop sustainable fresh water, electricity, greenhouse agriculture and shellfish aquaculture.
The pressure is on, as conservation success in Laguna San Ignacio will serve as a role model for other protected areas throughout the country. The project is a perfect example of how, if it is to succeed, environmental conservation cannot only be about species and habitats, but must include local communities.
Report by Debbie Winton.
Find out more about volunteering on the Earthwatch expedition Tracking Baja's Black Sea Turtles.