Recently, I got this e-mail forwarded to me. It started out with the header
Followed by images like these:
The Turtle eggs are stolen to be sold.
The planet is thankful for the forwarding of this email.
The e-mail isn’t an isolated incident. A quick internet search will immediately bring up sites like this one, heralding the extinction of sea turtles in Costa Rica due to the illegal harvest of their eggs.
Look, I know it looks bad. Yes, the photos are real and of people taking thousands of sea turtle eggs from the Ostional Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica. Yes, all seven species of sea turtles in the world are endangered. And yes, in general, it’s illegal to even touch a sea turtle egg without a permit. But the people in these photos aren’t doing anything illegal, and the Costa Rican olive ridley population is just fine. In fact, harvesting eggs may be helping the sea turtle populations.
Let me explain.
There are very few places in the world where harvesting sea turtle eggs is legal, but the Ostional Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica is one of them. In 1987, the refuge put in place a harvesting program which allows the members of about 120 families from the Ostional community to collect eggs from olive ridley nests. The program was developed by the Ostional Development Association and approved by the Costa Rican Institute for Aquaculture and Fishing and the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications, and was based on scientific evidence at the time which suggested that harvesting the eggs wouldn’t do any harm, and might just do some economic good in a struggling community.
You see, every year, the Ostional Wildlife Refuge is the scene of a spectacular natural show termed arribadas, meaning “arrival”. Its beaches are inundated with (and I’m not exaggerating) hundreds of thousands of nesting female olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea). In 1991, over 600,000 turtles nested along a single coast… in one week. This synchronized nesting behavior is incredible, and you can literally find the beaches in Costa Rica covered with sea turtles driven by a powerful urge to pass on their genes.
But it turns out this massive influx of nesting females comes with a cost, and not to the people in the area. In olive ridley society, the early birds aren’t rewarded with worms – they get their nests destroyed. The problem is, the females so overrun these beaches that there just isn’t enough space for all their nests, and they end up digging up the nests of the turtles that came before. This means that almost 100% of the nests which are laid early in the season fail completely. Better to be fashionably late, right? Actually, no, not really. When the late arrivals dig up their predecessors nests, they break a lot of the eggs, which leads to the growth of a devastating fungus that actually kills the unbroken eggs near it, too. The end result is quite devastating; the beaches are filled with the smell of rotten yeast and few baby sea turtles make it out to sea.
Of course, that’s not to say human desires weren’t taken into account in the decision made by the Ostional community. They had their own concerns, too. Sea turtle eggs are considered a delicacy, and the wave of environmental movements which banned their harvest hurt the local economy and promoted the illegal and unsustainable harvest of eggs from more remote beaches where fewer turtles nest. The economic gain and the hope of reducing poaching were strong incentives to harvest the eggs.
The program has now been running for thirteen years. A study conducted in 1997 found that the harvest had no negative impact on the number of nesting turtles, and actually may be improving their numbers by removing doomed eggs before they are destroyed by other nesting turtles.
Around 3 million eggs are harvested every year. While that sounds like a lot, that’s only what the people can collect in the short timeframe when harvesting is legal: the first 36 hours of the nesting season. Nine times that many eggs are left to hatch on their own. Furthermore, since they have a stake in the eggs, the local community tends to protect these beaches from other predators, and with the flood of turtle eggs entering the market legally, their price is kept low enough to discourage poachers.
All and all, the project is supported not only in Costa Rica but by sea turtle conservation organizations worldwide. It’s seen as a true successful implementation of sustainable harvesting. Still, scientists continue to monitor the ongoing effects of the harvest on olive ridley populations, and for good reason. Illegal poaching, boat collisions and incidental take as bycatch in other fisheries are still threats to their worldwide populations, and while the numbers in Ostional are stable, olive ridleys are becoming more and more scarce in other parts of their range. If the Costa Rican population seems to head downward, you can bet that the Ostional harvesting will come under severe scrutiny.
My main point, though is that sometimes even the most damning images don’t tell the whole story. Check your sources before you pass on e-mails like this one. There are a lot of terrible things happening in the world that we need to call attention to, like the slaughter of dolphins and whales depicted in the documentary The Cove. With all the injustices there are in the world, what we don’t need to be doing is vilifying those who don’t deserve it.
CAMPBELL, L. (1998). Use them or lose them? Conservation and the consumptive use of marine turtle eggs at Ostional, Costa Rica Environmental Conservation, 25 (4), 305-319 DOI: 10.1017/S0376892998000393
Cornelius, S.E., M. Alvarado U., J. Carlos C., M. Mata D.V., and D.C. Robinson. (1991). Management of olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) nesting at Playas, Nancite and Ostional, Costa Rica. in J.G. Robinson and K.H. Redford (eds.), Neotropical Wildlife Use and Conservation. University of Chicago Press, Chicago., 111-135
National Marine Fisheries Service, & U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1998). Recovery Plan for U.S. Pacific Populations of the Olive Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) National Marine Fisheries Service, Silver Spring, MD. 52pp.