Never in my wildest dreams as a child would I have imagined that I would be battling illegal gillnet fishermen in remote regions of Central America in my efforts to help save endangered sea turtles, but this is exactly what happened. I was helping out at an animal rescue sanctuary in the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica and the sanctuary owner had just started creating a much needed sea turtle rescue project on the other side of the peninsula where we had spotted eggs of the endangered leatherback sea turtle as well as the hawksbill turtle, which is also endangered.
Illegal Gillnet Fishermen
The stretch of beach where we found the eggs was quite remote with only a few houses in the entire ten-mile length of coastline. Due to its remoteness, this area was also attractive to fishermen that were illegally taking their catch from the ocean and carrying along with them whatever their gillnets brought up from its depths. Unfortunately, the nets would often pull in unsuspecting sea turtles. The fishermen could make a good amount of money by gutting the turtles and selling the shells to buyers in the Puntarenas area. Moreover, it is a local tradition to collect sea turtles eggs and serve them up with hot sauce. They supposedly increase the male libido, which is certainly greatly needed in these days of sparse human population!
I was mainly in charge of creating the website, but I also helped patrol the beach to find new nests and cover them up before hungry locals, fishermen or raccoons could find and devour them. The fishermen had never been supportive to our cause for good reason…they knew that we were trying to save the turtles. However, relations went terribly awry one afternoon after I had completed my patrol.
Now we assumed that the Costa Rican MINAE official was doing his job and making sure that the fishermen were abiding by the strictest of environmental standards (as the country touts in its ecotourism image), but you know what assuming often does to you and me. The truth is that we rarely saw anyone from the government patrolling the area.
Two young female volunteers from the U.S. were on their patrol after I had finished and they came upon the fishermen in midday. This time the fishermen decided that they had enough and began to chase the volunteers towards the mighty Pacific with their machetes raised in their sunburned hands. The volunteers managed to escape with only a few bruises, but the message became clear: the government was doing little to keep these poachers out and the beach belonged to them!
What Can We Do???
I then came to realize that the only way these turtle nests and their respective species were going to survive in this area is if nonprofit organizations and people like you and me put enough pressure on poachers that they decide it is not worth their while or are eventually brought to justice. The area is difficult to reach and this particular part of the country is fairly poor, which means they have little to spend on enforcing environmental regulations on a remote beach. There are some great organizations out there that are helping to save sea turtles like The Sea Turtle Conservancy and Save the Turtles. The leatherback turtle will most likely be extinct in a few short years if we do not do something about it.
Earthwatch Institute is also active in research and education about sea turtles in Costa Rica. Check out their video:
What is your take on this issue?