I get e-mail, too.

Recently, I got this e-mail forwarded to me. It started out with the header

World shame coast in COSTA RICA

Followed by images like these:
i-43862b862dd899434e6f4a92ce4414f1-Screen shot 2010-09-29 at 9.24.56 PM.png
i-7386cc6b9b6ec3f5ca669d3a19378796-Screen shot 2010-09-29 at 9.25.13 PM.png
and it concluded with the message:
Please distribute widely.
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.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgReferences:
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.


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Nice post and cool story. I will keep an eye out for this.

Great post.

Things are almost always more complicated than they originally appear. Which is why we need scientists to study the issues, draw provisional conclusions, disseminate this in usable form to the public. And, as ever, wash-rinse-repeat to keep up as the facts on the ground change.

I certainly don't have the background or time to know such things in detail. Presented the e-mails, in the absence of other information, I would have concluded the harvest must be stopped. I would have been wrong.

Today I have a shot at being right three times. I tremble with anticipation.

Great post! Informative and sanely stated.

I received this today from one of my friends. Not that he cares anything about wildlife, but because he thinks this kind of stuff disproves any possibility of mankind having any sort of influence on Global warning. As with everything I get from him, I did a search to see what the real story was and came across your factual explanation.

I forwarded him the link for this site. Which was probably an exercise in futility, since I know he will just view your explanation as some sort of liberal tree hugger plot. Sadly, it's true, some people just "can't see the forest for the trees.

By Kentucky Turtle (not verified) on 30 Sep 2010 #permalink

A great post containing wise council and good advice.

A question though about the early arriving turtles: is it the same turtles arriving early each year or is the distribution of arrival around the nesting time random from individual to individual? My guess is that a turtle that is early one year has a good chance of being right on time in subsequent years.

One year in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, NYC, diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys) nests were located and "protected" from skunk & raccoon predation by fastening chicken wire over them with landscape staples. The problem was that the hatchlings began to emerge over the semester break, when the grad students overseeing the program were home from school, partying in Florida, or whatever. Upon their return they found a lot of dead hatchlings under the wire. With this kind of "protection," and that intended by the egg harvesting in Costa Rica, the turtles don't need any natural enemies to hasten their extinction. I guess that Aldo Leopold was right about always killing the things we love.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 01 Oct 2010 #permalink

As with the Costa Rican example above, it is easy to misunderstand what you see. I am intimately familiar with the Jamaica Bay project you describe. Over the years we have protected and released probably 5000 hatchlings, nearly all of which would have otherwise been eaten as eggs by raccoons. One year we made some timing mistakes and accidentally killed about 30 hatchlings under our nest protectors. No one was off partying, we were working on other projects. We changed our procedures and the problem has not recurred in subsequent years. To suggest that our work has not been an overwhelming benefit to the JB terrapin population is pretty much deliberate ignorance.

I'm glad that you've upgraded your protocols so that hatchling terrapins are no longer being killed, Burke. Thanks, too, for admitting this mistake after the fact. As I recall, at the time the mishap was hushed up in order to avoid negative publicity for the project.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 06 Oct 2010 #permalink

For shame on them,we need to better educate these people .

By Daisy Vasquez (not verified) on 06 Oct 2010 #permalink

Which people would those be, Daisy?

Of course, everyone could benefit from more education (like this great post by Christie)...

But every time you hear, read or are tempted to write or say the words "these people", I suggest you conduct a quick mental check for implicit ignorance and bigotry. They sound so innocent, but they're two of the most poisonous words ever spoken.

By John Scanlon, FCD (not verified) on 30 Oct 2010 #permalink

Excellent post :)

This could be my new favorite example of why wildlife conservation can be counter-intuitive, and why it therefore needs to be science-based.

Hello everybody, in Ostional we work with students, to teach in the place of the event, environmental studies. We do reforestation, and bring oceanographers and marine biologist to explain what is going on here. Info at wendyplus@gmail.com tel 50688169815 skype wendolyta twitter lorahills.