Gulf of California

A world away, and still, turtles.
by -- April 23rd, 2013

Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve spent the last year and a half participating in the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.  My primary case has been assisting with the representation of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, in a case against North Carolina’s Division of Marine Fisheries and Marine Fisheries Commission.  When I first became involved with the case last winter, I had no idea that it would become such a large part of my life.  Here I am in Kino Bay, 2,500 miles from the Clinic, and naturally, I’m asking fishermen about sea turtles and fishery interactions.

We spent Friday and Saturday getting to know several locals in Kino, mainly Leopoldo “Polo” and Noe – two fishermen who have changed careers and now work as divers for a biological monitoring program. COBI, or Comunidad y Biodiversidad, is a local non-profit cofounded by our own Xavier Basurto.  During annual biological monitoring surveys, COBI’s divers record water quality parameters as well as fish and algae abundance along specific transects.  My ears perked up when Polo told us that COBI also takes annual sea turtle population surveys at Isla San Pedro Martir.

Mexico historically had a sea turtle fishery, though it was officially prohibited in 1988, and sea turtles are now legally protected.  COBI began doing these population surveys 6 years ago, and Polo reports that since they began, he is seeing more turtles each year.  When I asked him why he thought this might be, he had two possible explanations.  First, he believed that fishermen had respect for the law now, since if you are caught catching a turtle, you are heavily fined. Secondly, he said that the turtles may be getting used to the divers being around them, so they may not be as shy over time.  He gave an example of how groupers – cabrillos – in Cabo Pulmo are now so acclimated to divers that you can nearly touch them.

Polo explained that the gill nets historically used to catch turtles were twice the mesh size of any gillnets used now.  As we saw from walking around the beach, gillnets are still a common technique in this area, and a variety of sizes are used to catch sharks, mackerel, shrimp and other fish.

A variety of gillnets in Kino Bay

Polo noted that in addition to the ban on the nets used to catch turtles, other nets use Turtle Excluder Devices, so he believes that there is no excuse to have caught a turtle as bycatch.  I found this contrast to be particularly strong compared to incidental takes of turtles in North Carolina’s fisheries.  North Carolina has spent the last few years applying for an updated Incidental Take Permit (ITP) for the large mesh gill net flounder fishery.  ITPs are a requirement when a fishery “takes” (harms or kills) an endangered species, such as sea turtles.  Many critics of the permit application say that North Carolina isn’t trying to reduce the number of turtles caught in the gill nets, and they are simply trying to justify their current level of takes – a very different attitude from Polo’s.

I’m learning, through very patient translators, the cultural importance of sea turtles in the Gulf of California.  The local Seri Indians consider leatherback turtles to be sacred, and have a tradition of celebrating for days when live leatherbacks, or even just bones, are found, to avoid ill health.  I spoke with Manuel, who recounted a story of a man who accidentally harpooned a leatherback, and later his skin turned the same color of the turtle and he died.  Environmental education program are becoming more prominent at local schools, and it’s becoming apparent that turtle conservation in the Gulf is also coming from the younger generation.  As Xuan recounted Noe’s story of the sea turtle spared from dinner, I’m continually more optimistic of the fate of turtles in the Gulf, even if we did just meet a fisherman who told us that the eggs are delicious with lime…

I’m excited to spend the rest of the week meeting more local fishermen, hearing about the Seri’s traditions, and continuing to explore the Gulf of California.  Manuel will be coming camping with us, and said he would bring his traditional robe and sing Seri songs for us, including the song involved in the story of why leatherbacks are considered sacred.  It’s been fascinating for me to see how a different culture values their protected species, and I’m hoping to find lessons here that can be applied to managing the incidental catch of turtles back in North Carolina.

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