Today, we’re flooded with hopeless headlines of disappearing ecosystems and endangered wildlife. Yet, along the remote and rugged coastline of Western Mexico, a population of black sea turtles has recovered from near extinction, thanks to the Black Sea Turtle Recovery Program. In fact, it’s one of the most successful wildlife conservation programs in the world — and SEE Turtles helped.
Considered by most experts as a subspecies of the globally ranging green sea turtle, the black sea turtle occurs only in the eastern tropical Pacific. The black sea turtle population is currently doing well, but that wasn’t always the case. “This turtle was close to extinction in the 1960’s and 1970’s due to the intensive harvesting of reproductive adults and nearly all of the eggs laid along the coast,” says biologist Carlos Delgado from the University of Michoacán.
By the 1970’s, it’s estimated that an average of 70,000 eggs per night were taken and harvested during the peak of the nesting, at about 20 pesos per 100 eggs. The number of nesting females went from an estimated 25,000 in the 1960s and 1970s to perhaps as few as 170 by 1988.
To save this turtle, something needed to change.
The Road to Recovery
So, in 1982, the Michoacán University, indigenous communities from Maruata and Colola, and national and international institutions started a project to recover the black turtle population of the Michoacán coastline. “Colola Beach is the most important nesting site for the black turtle in Mexico,” says Delgado. It hosts more than 75 percent of the world population of black turtles.
The first part of the program was to keep people from collecting the eggs. To do that, the University of Michoacan biologists set up hatcheries every nesting season at Colola and Maruata. Members with the project would patrol the beach at night, collect eggs and transplant them to new nests dug in a hatchery. Once the hatchlings emerged, they were collected from the pens and then released from the beach to crawl to the sea.
The next part of the effort was to involve the local community in the conservation process. For instance, for centuries the black sea turtle was an important food source for the Nahua indigenous group on the Michoacan coast. Yet, it was no longer sustainable. One of the goals of the recovery program was to help the local people find alternative sources of food, such as iguana farming and family gardens. Additionally, the adult turtles and their eggs were an important source of income. So, the project developed an ecotourism program to view the nesting turtles, with profits going back to the local community. The idea was to make living turtles worth more than dead ones.
In 1999, this project had a low of just over 500 nests. But starting in 2,000, nesting numbers began a steady climb upward due to the efforts of the community and researchers, combined with a ban on hunting turtles in Mexico in the 1980’s. The past two seasons have been the best in decades, averaging more than 30,000 nests. The average number of nesting females has increased from a low of about 500 individuals to more than 10,000 as of 2016. Their population is now considered one of the 12 healthiest sea turtle populations in the world.
SEE Turtles has played a part in that success by funding the nesting beach work, as part of the Billion Baby Turtles program. The funds go towards paying local residents to patrol important turtle nesting beaches, protecting turtles that come up to nest. In 2013, the first year we worked with Colola, we gave the project a $3,000 grant, which helped save 40,000 hatchlings. As of 2019, we’ve provided a total of $42,000 in funding which has helped to save more than 1.3 million hatchlings at this important beach! We plan to increase our support and benefit the community through offering new trips to participate in this inspiring program.
“The recuperation of the black turtle has been made possible due to the support of organizations like SEE Turtles who have committed to restore this sub-species to its historic levels,” says Delgado.
Photo credits: Carlos Delgado / University of Michoacan