Sea turtle tourism: saving or compromising the irreplaceable?
Recently I camped in Padre Island National Seashore with my fiancé Erin. Mostly we walked our dogs along the shore, waded and swam in the sea a bit on both sides of the island. For a few hours, a friend of mine from Colorado and his girlfriend visited and we swam in the ocean. The eastern coast of north Padre Island where the seashore is located is a protected, calm hypersaline environment. The hypersaline Madre Lagoon is a special environment unlike few on earth. The water is glassy smooth and you can watch people in the shallow waters fishing in waders and sailboarders gliding across the water near sunset. Fish jump everywhere, rare roseate spoonbills and tricolor herons can be found there. Laughing gulls call through the warm summer air and brown pelicans fly across rolling grasslands in lines.
The last morning we were on Padre Island, Erin was lucky enough to witness the release of Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles at the visitor center. I stayed in the car with the dogs to make sure they weren’t too hot, as I’ve already participated in releasing sea turtles myself. Volunteering for five months at a biology field camp in Equatorial Guinea, I’ve taken tourists on excursions to watch sea turtles nesting as volunteers counted eggs and marked nests.
In 1866, when the ASPCA received its mandate from the state of New York, sea turtles were viewed in a very different light by Americans than they are today. Turtles were shipped from the tropics and sold after days without food and water, tied to boats on their backs with rope through holes punched in their flippers. Live turtles were seen by many Americans at the time as little more than a moving luxury meat.
Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA, arrested the captain of a sea turtle trading boat on charges of animal cruelty. Eventually the ship’s captain and crew were acquitted as turtles were not seen as animals under the law, but the case was a victory in raising awareness of sea turtles and their plight.
Today consumption of turtle or turtle eggs is generally out of fashion in America but it isn’t the case in other parts of the world. I’ve seen the butchered bodies of leatherback sea turtles turned on their backs, guts piled neatly on leaves. I’ve seen turtles killed in Western Africa by corrupt military men with fake permits allowing them to hunt turtles. It’s not just Africa either, the Americas, Australia, Asia, anywhere sea turtles have been found, people have eaten them or their eggs. Overtime, harvesting of sea turtles became over harvesting but in reality new fishing techniques are a big part of sea turtle decline.
The Seri tribe of Sonora Mexico have a ceremony honoring captured leatherback sea turtles. For four days the turtles is kept in a palm thatch hut and honored as a returned member of their tribe. The ceremony stems from a myth in which a Seri girl turned into a leatherback. After four days, if the turtle survived, she was released without harm, if she died she was ceremonially eaten and her remains buried as if she were Seri. It’s easy to write off ceremonies like this one as superstition, but we should bear in mind that we have our own strange cultural idiosyncrasies when encountering animals.
When I volunteered in Equatorial Guinea, I was horrified that the volunteers were encouraged to kill crabs on the beach. Crabs do predate sea turtle eggs and hatchlings, but they’re also part of the environment and as worthy as turtles. Many of the volunteers turned crab killing into a vicious game, crushing the crabs with a chosen stick, having contests to kill the most. Others stomped, kicked and jumped on the helpless crabs with apparent glee.
As I sat in the parking lot outside of the Padre Island visitors center, I could hear occasional words from a bullhorn, talking about sea turtles and I reflected. I remember following an anchor rope down into the sea on my first SCUBA trip off Mexico’s Yucatan. At the bottom of the rope were two beautiful green sea turtles, turning and moving through the water like circling vultures on the wing. The turtles were so graceful, a striking contrast to turtles hauling themselves laboriously across a beach under a full moon, to complete their life cycle. I thought about the first time I saw turtle track on a beach, pointed out to me by an old man in the Bahamas; they looked like tank tracks. I wondered about my own part in conserving turtles. Leatherback turtles that nested on the beach when I was a volunteer were injected with microchips or scanned for old chips; we took tissue samples cut from their flesh. We counted and weighed eggs, carefully monitored the temperature of nests.
People walked across the parking lot towards the Padre Island visitor center, casually texting on their phones or talking to each other in small groups. A couple of dogs were walked around the edge of the parking lot. The parking lot was all asphalt, the visitor’s center was a modern building. The weather was bright and clear, a breeze brought the smell of the sea to me as I sat in the driver’s seat, thinking.
Erin told me that the man speaking on the bullhorn had previously worked in Yellowstone National Park. He compared the Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles to Bison. The comparison between a marine reptile and a land mammal may seem odd to some but I find it strangely apt. Bison were brought to the edge of extinction by thoughtless slaughter and then protected, bred and re-released. Likewise, sea turtles the world over are hatched in artificial conditions and returned to the wild. Turtles are intensely managed and protected.
Rancho Nuevo in Tamaulipas Mexico is the main nesting site of Kemp’s Ridley turtles in the world. According to nps.gov, scientists studying the nesting site in the 1960s found that 90% of the nests were destroyed on the same day the eggs were laid. The eggs were loaded into trucks to be sold or eaten.
It’s estimated that 40,000 female turtles once nested on the beach at Rancho Nuevo, but by 1985, only 702 nests were found worldwide. Despite protection from the Mexican government, the population of turtles nesting had continued to decline. The turtle release Erin witnessed at Padre Island is part of a collaboration between conservationists in Mexico and the United States. A certain number of eggs laid at Rancho Nuevo are now packed in sand from Padre Island and sent there to be released, where hopefully they will have a better chance. Changes in fishing laws and commercial fishing being banned near Rancho Nuevo have also helped the turtles. In 2009 there were almost 20,000 known Kemp’s Ridleys nests in the world, a massive increase from the low point of 702.
I remember walking on a black sand beach in Equatorial Guinea at night with European tourists. I’d told the tourists to be careful, to be quiet, to not use flash photography, to stand a reasonable distance from the turtles. We approached carefully a turtle digging her nest on the beach. She was a smaller green turtle, I knew they were a shy species and I felt it good luck that she continued to dig her nest as the tourists carefully watched. Sometimes the approach of one person was enough to scare a green turtle back into the sea. As we observed a young boy with the group of tourists broke rank and ran at the turtle. “Ha ha,” he shrieked as he jumped with both feet on the turtle’s back. It wasn’t my finest moment, but all I could think to do was start screaming obscenities at the tourists and kick them off the beach. The little boy cried, clinging to his father’s leg as he tried comforting his son. I didn’t care.
Another time on the beach, I had to tell a tourist to step back to avoid treading on a baby leatherback just making her way towards the ocean.
“At nine sites, where turtles are used for their meat, eggs, and shells, the average annual income from these products was $582,000 whereas at nine locations where turtles are a tourist attraction, the average annual income was nearly three times higher at US $1.65 million.”
The take home lesson is that a live sea turtle is worth more than a dead sea turtle. I wonder at the wisdom of this approach. When we reduce animals to a tourist attraction, we all too often end up with drive through parks for photo ops. If you drive through Custer State Park in South Dakota or Arches National Park in Utah, it’s not hard contemplating the line of cars to wonder how much connection people are making to the place. We’ve blurred the line between wild and domesticated with animals like bison that were bred in captivity far away in New York before being reintroduced to the western US. Bison are also carefully managed, sometimes culled and branded across parks in the US, actions that rob them of their wildness. With sea turtles it’s the same story, by turning them into carefully managed spectacle, we change their nature and our relationship with them.
In 2016, tourists saw a distressed bison calf in Yellowstone National Park. For days before that, Deby Dixon, a wildlife photographer had observed the abandoned calf, as she said in a Washington Post article,
“The calf was orphaned or had become separated from its mother. The calf would not be adopted by another cow and could not survive alone, and so it was just a matter of time before it died or was killed.”
She explains in the article that the Bison was wild and so beyond the help of humans, any interference would be a detriment to its wildness. But the tourists didn’t see the bison as wild, they saw an infant animal that needed help.
I think the tourists in their own way were justified. How is saving the life of one baby bison so different than saving the species on individual at a time? There is a population of bison in Yellowstone National Park that stems from an original 25 animals that weren’t domesticated, it’s known as the last wild herd of bison.
In 2017, the year after the tourists loaded the bison calf into their car, Yellowstonepark.com reports that 1,200 bison were sent to a slaughter house. The culling is because of Brucellosis, a disease introduced originally by European cattle and now eradicated in cows. Culling bison helps prevent cows from catching brucellosis. I wonder how an animal sent to slaughter houses for the sake of cows can be considered wild in any real sense of the word.
Sea turtles are released by smiling volunteers the world over. People pay money to visit places like Costa Rica and raise and release turtles on the beach. Turtles are monitored with GPS devices and injected with microchips. Tags are inserted into holes in flippers, probably in a similar way to ropes that once tied them to docks in New York. I wonder if we see turtles as animals any more than the judge who acquitted the crew of a turtle trading ship over a hundred years ago.
In an article for The Huffington Post, Dr. Dave Randle told of participating in the annual Tour de Turtles. Without irony, he tells how his day began waking up in a room at Disney’s Vero Beach. Turtles are captured at night and have GPS tracking devices glued to their shells before being released in the morning for Tour de Turtles where tourists watch them race down the beach and back into the ocean. The event was created as a conservation outreach program.
I am glad that at least some turtle populations are rebounding. No one hopes more than I that we can continue to share the planet with these beautiful marine reptiles. I still can’t help but be sad at the methods we’ve had to use. I’m also deeply uncomfortable thinking about a future when survival of any species is built upon its use as a tourist attraction.