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A Turtle’s Progress

Bi-national cooperation fuels a Kemp's ridley revival, but the work is far from over.

By Tom Harvey

As the sun set on a Mexican beach south of Brownsville, Jaime Peña knelt in the sand just a few feet from the foaming ocean. Before him, illuminated by the day’s last light, lay a plastic tray filled with Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings, newborn turtles just four inches long. One by one, Peña plucked the hatchlings out of the tray, placed them gently on the sand and watched them crawl the last few feet into the sea.

All around, up and down the beach, Mexican and U.S. scientists and volunteers were doing the same, turning the tide line black with wriggling turtle hatchlings.

“This is the best part of the project — my favorite part — just helping out the babies a little bit more,” Peña explained. “I deal a lot with governments, politics and permits and this and that, but this makes everything worthwhile and more.”

Peña is conservation programs curator at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville. He’s been with the sea turtle recovery project since 1994 and is now field crew director for U.S. support of Kemp’s ridley programs in Mexico. He’s been around long enough to know that, on that night, something remarkable was happening.

The date was June 28, 2006, when 240,000 ridley turtle hatchlings were released at once, the largest single-day turtle release since the binational recovery project began three decades ago. It’s an impressive number, although ultimately only a tiny percentage will survive and return to nest as adult females.

But even though sea turtle nestings on Texas and Mexico beaches have soared to record highs in recent years, biologists are tempering jubilation with caution, emphasizing that current levels of funding and work must continue for the world’s most endangered sea turtle to fully recover.

The Kemp’s ridley is one of five sea turtle species found in the Gulf of Mexico, all of them threatened or endangered. The other four are the hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead and green sea turtles. The ridley is the world’s smallest and rarest.

“Ground zero” for the Kemp’s ridley

Last year’s big ridley release took place at Tepehuajes, about 200 miles south of Brownsville. It’s one of the northernmost “turtle camps” within the 125-kilometer stretch of Mexican beach, where 99 percent of the world’s ridley population nests.

Rancho Nuevo, a little farther south, is “ground zero” for ridley nesting. It was here in 1947 that Andres Herrera shot film that rocked the wildlife science world, showing an arribada, or arrival, of tens of thousands of female turtles on a single day.

In the years that followed, however, human poachers and natural predators took an alarming toll on the ridley. Nesting numbers steadily dropped to a record low of only 702 nests in 1985, the dark days when many scientists feared nothing could stop the turtle’s headlong plunge toward extinction.

Lately, things have improved a lot, but it’s been no accident.

Mexico began protecting sea turtles in 1966. In 1977, the Mexican government declared Rancho Nuevo the country’s first sea turtle reserve. The next year, the collaborative binational program involving the U.S. began to try to restore the Kemp’s ridley to a self-sustaining level.

“Most of these turtles reach sexual maturity around 12 years of age, so basically I’m seeing my [hatchlings] come back and nest,” Peña said. “But I can only imagine how people like Jaime Ortiz, the camp coordinator here at Tepehuajes, feels. He has been doing this since 1978. And back in those days, if you had a thousand turtles a year, that was a lot. And we’re talking about 2,000 turtles in one day back on May 11. So it’s an incredible feeling to be part of this.”

Each spring and summer for three decades, scientists, graduate students and volunteers have come to live in the Mexican turtle camps. They patrol the beaches, looking for telltale tracks in the sand, signs of a nesting female. They carefully dig up the eggs and rebury them inside protected corrals, where they’re safe from poachers and predators. The work is hot, the conditions remote and primitive.

But it’s paid off. Last year, more than 100 ridley turtle nests were found on Texas beaches, twice the previous year’s number, vindicating decades of work by U.S. scientists and dedicated volunteers to re-establish a second nesting location in Texas. (See “Solving the Ridley Riddle,” March 2004.)

Still, Mexico remains the primary home for the species — a record 12,143 ridley nests were found there in 2006. Although the United States. has provided money and manpower, Mexican elected officials, scientists, students and volunteers have played key roles in the ridley recovery. Without 41 years of work by Mexican biologists, the turtle would not be recovering, a fact that sometimes gets scant attention north of the border.

Help from an unexpected source

The turtle camps needed more all-terrain vehicles to patrol beaches and better accommodations for workers, things the governments couldn’t always provide. Help came from an unexpected source in 1995, when a new partner emerged on the scene.

“It really started when Pat Burchfield with the Gladys Porter Zoo made a presentation to our seafood industry at one of our association meetings,” said Les Hodgson, co-owner of Marco Sales, a Brownsville shrimp wholesaler. “He explained to us how important it was to keep a balance in nature, and that if you lose a species, it has an effect on another species. And if we want to maintain a good shrimp stock out in the Gulf, we’ve got to maintain a healthy environment for all the animals out there.”

Shrimping practices had been identified as one reason for the Kemp’s ridley’s decline, and in the 1990s shrimpers were required to start using turtle-excluder devices, holes in shrimp trawls that allow sea turtles to escape and avoid drowning.

At a time when some people were placing blame, zoo director Burchfield went to Orlando to speak to the National Fisheries Institute, holding an olive branch.

“I told them they need the turtle as much as we do, because it’s part of the food web where they earn their living,” Burchfield said. “I asked them to be part of the solution. I was very pleased at the warm reception I got.”

Burchfield’s words took hold with Les and his brother Larry, who began a crusade to get U.S. shrimpers into the ridley recovery project. The Hodgsons approached the Texas Shrimp Association and Wild American Shrimp, the marketing group that represents shrimpers in eight U.S. states along the Gulf and Atlantic. A fluent Spanish-speaker, Les also got Mexican shrimpers involved.

“Together, the Mexican industry bought the property here, the U.S. industry bought the material for this camp at Tepehuajes, and between the fishermen from both countries we spent two months down here building the 12-bed facility for the biologists that run this camp,” Hodgson said.

Ocean Trust, a Virginia-based nonprofit that promotes science, conservation and seafood partnerships, also helped fund and build the Tepehuajes camp and continues to support ridley restoration with contributions from the seafood industry.

Building local sustainability: jobs from turtles

Around the globe, wildlife conservation efforts often fail without the support of local communities. With that in mind, turtle supporters took a new tack in 1996.

“When we first started, we thought shrimpers were probably the most adversely affected by government regulations,” Hodgson said. “But it wasn’t until we spent some time in the little ejidos [communal farms] behind the turtle camps that we found they had lost revenue from not being able to collect turtle eggs and were probably hurt worse than anyone.”

Shrimpers and scientists went to work with the Mexican federal agency Desarollo Integral Familiar, whose role is to create jobs and industry at the family level in local communities. The Darden Foundation (affiliated with a company that owns Red Lobster restaurants) helped fund construction of a commercial kiln in Tepehuajes. Patricia Luevano, a Tamaulipan state turtle restoration leader, got the governor’s wife personally involved, and they brought in skilled artisans from other areas of Mexico to train the locals on how to make pottery and even paid them a salary while they were learning. University of Texas at Brownsville Art Professor Nancy Sclight also volunteered to help teach the villagers ceramic arts.

“We had no idea what the response would be, but the day we opened the pottery school, all 40 families showed up,” said Hodgson. “For most of the women, it was the first time they’d ever had a job they got paid to do.”

Ceramic candle holders, flowerpots, wall sconces, wine chillers and many other items — all bearing ridley turtle motifs — now sell at places like Gladys Porter Zoo and Sea Turtle, Inc., a turtle rehabilitation facility on South Padre Island. Most of the money goes back to the families in Tepehuajes. The rest is used for sea turtle public education and conservation.

The government is also planning to expand a small museum at La Pesca, the northernmost Mexican turtle camp, to better interpret the ridley story for Mexican and U.S. visitors and support turtle-related tourism.

Heading in the right direction, but not home yet

The current Kemp’s ridley bi-national recovery plan calls for a total of 10,000 females nesting in a single year, among other provisions, for biologists to consider “downlisting” the species from endangered to threatened. If current trends continue, Peña says some scientists believe the project could hit that mark by 2012. (Recovery targets could change, since the plan is now undergoing revision. The draft revised recovery plan will be out for public comment later this year.)

“We cannot look at a 2,000-turtle arribada on May 11 as ‘Okay, that’s it, we got it, the turtle’s recovered, let’s pack it up and go home’ — not at all,” Peña said. “This is the one-yard line — we cannot stop now.

“But I think this is the example to follow in conservation, not only for sea turtles, but for any endangered species. If you can have federal, state and local governments, fisheries industries, universities and NGOs from both countries working together, that is the key for conservation success. That is the word: cooperation.”

Turtle-viewing opportunities

There are at least two places in Texas where people can see live Kemp’s ridley sea turtles up close and personal, and a couple of spots where visitors can watch the release of ridley hatchlings crawling into the surf.

Padre Island National Seashore, south of Corpus Christi on the barrier island, (361) 949-8068, <www.nps.gov/pais>. For three decades, Donna Shaver has been leading efforts to re-establish a Texas nesting population of Kemp’s ridleys here. Turtle eggs collected along the Texas coast are brought to the national seashore, which has an established program of summer hatchling releases for the public. Call the Hatchling Hotline at (361) 949-7163 for up-to-date information on turtle releases from April to August.

Texas State Aquarium, 2710 N. Shoreline Boulevard, Corpus Christi, (800) 477-4853, <www.texasstateaquarium.org>. Visitors can watch through underwater windows as live ridleys swim around in the big Turtle Cove aquarium. These once-injured, nonreleasable turtles now live a comfortable life supporting public education. The aquarium also has green, hawksbill and loggerhead sea turtles.

Sea Turtle, Inc., 6617 Padre Boulevard, South Padre Island, (956) 761-4511, <www.seaturtle inc.com>. STI was founded in 1977 by Ila Loetscher, popularly known as “The Turtle Lady.” It rehabilitates injured sea turtles and provides educational programs for schools and public visitors, including Turtle Shows, where people can see live ridleys and other turtle species that are nonreleasable or in rehab. Under oversight by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the organization also incubates eggs and releases hatchlings from turtles that nest in the South Padre Island area. From April to August, STI conducts ridley hatchling releases, roping off a protected area on the beach right in front of condominium row, where the public is welcome to observe for free. Check the Web site for release dates in the nesting season.

What to do if you spot a sea turtle on the beach

Turtle scientists rely on public reports as well as on volunteers. If you see a large sea turtle crawling on the beach or laying eggs, or if you find a sick or injured turtle, call (866) 887-8535. You’ll hear a recording that will give you the correct phone number to call based on where the sighting occurred. For more information, visit the PAIS Web site: <www.nps.gov/pais/naturescience/reporting.htm>.

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