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Sea Turtles Status: Gamera is in Trouble

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Sea Turtles Status:
Gamera is in Trouble

By Vinny Schwatrz

Green Sea Turtle swims in the PacificIt has been a long-held belief in India, and other cultures  that the Earth is suspended by an elephant which stands on the back of a tortoise.

According to Iroquois oral history, Sky Woman fell down to the earth when it was covered with water. Various animals tried to swim to the bottom of the ocean to bring back earth to create land. Muskrat succeeded and placed the earth  on the back of a turtle, which grew into the land known today as North America.

In fact, according to many indigenous people, North America is known as Turtle Island.

In the language of the Seneca, the mythical turtle is called Hah-nu-nah, while the name for an everyday turtle is ha-no-wa.

Everywhere you turn somebody is trying to save something that’s fading into oblivion because of Earth’s dominant species (look in the mirror) . Although reasonable people may be skeptical about these tales, many still wonder on what it is that the Cosmic Turtle stands. The reality is,  the turtle stands on the backs of all humanity. 

From the Saola (an Asian ox) to the Yangtze Finless Porpoise to the Vaquita (a porpoise) the World Wildlife Fund lists 17 critically endangered species.

Among these, are the Hawksbill (No.4),  Leatherback (No. 6) and the Green Sea Turtles, whose decline is resulting in a broad loss of productivity on the food chain which inevitably leads to a decrease in protein-rich food people may  harvest from the sea. 

Sea Turtles are  perhaps not as “glamorous” as the Javan Rhino or the Amur Leopard, but after 140 million years being an integral part of the eco-system they certainly don’t deserve extinction because people covet their eggs or enjoy Turtle Soup. 

The people who poach turtle eggs and turtles likely don’t know or give little thought to the fact that major changes have occurred in the oceans because they’re being murdered by people not only for their meat but because they eat their eggs, believing they’re an aphrodisiac.

Although this practice is illegal in Costa Rica, as it contributes to the depletion of the endangered sea turtle populations, it is hard to enforce without the help of the local community’s patrollers protection.

Commercial fishing, loss of nesting habitat and climate change are pushing sea turtles towards extinction. As their populations decline, so does their role fulfilling vital functions in marine ecosystems. 

Ironically It’s time we took more seriously the need to protect sea turtle  from ourselves and help rebuild their populations as a measure in ensuring healthy and resilient oceans for the future. 

Setting a worthy example for us all is Debbie Sherman, currently of Santa Rosa who felt compelled to do something about it - and did!

Albany, N.Y.-born Sherman didn’t see it coming.

She took a trip to Costa Rica in 1995 and headed out to see 77.000-acre Tortuguero National Park on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, where 20 miles of coastline,  provide sea turtles a protected place to lay their eggs

Tortuguero is bordered on the south by the mouth of the Parismina River and the Cariari National Wetlands, with the town of Tortuguero at the mouth of the Tortuguero River, and the Dr. Archie Carr Wildlife Refuge, which is a biological station to carry out a turtle tagging program run by the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (Now known as the Sea Turtle Conservancy

“There was no way to get to the park” says Sherman, so she and four other people hired a guide named Mono in Parismina a nearby village of 400 people,  and watched by crocodiles with eyes glowing red, they hopped aboard a boat and headed up the Parismina River at night. After awhile Mono pulled the boat over to the bank and the intrepid adventurers hiked through the dark jungle  toward the beach.

At one point the group watched, by the light of Mono’s tiny flashlight,  a Green Turtle come out of the ocean, dig herself a nest in the sand and lay her eggs.

“I’ve never felt a moment like that before”, says Sherman, “It was really strong - like I had felt eternity”.

Sherman explains she had a life-changing experience one day at a black sand beach, where she and friends had come to see turtles. On an earlier beach excursion “I saw carcasses and eggs” which sent a clear message to her that all was not well among the population of turtles.

On a subsequent trip with friends, at one point, many of the people  on the beach abruptly started running toward the ocean. 

“A male and female turtle were copulating close to shore  and suddenly two guys with machetes went running by to kill them” she recounts.

“I started sobbing and screaming”,  she says, “and I think  the turtles got away.

After witnessing this behavior,  Sherman found a handful of local villagers who already had concerns about the turtles’ safety, and were working toward protecting the turtles and their eggs.

 She called the biologist from Tortuguero and subsequently  the community-based association was born.  Says Sherman, “They were the bravest people of all” - and it was then in 2001 that Sherman started her Sea Turtle Rescue website 

The people of the village had to reconcile the age-old local practice of killing turtles for sustenance, but now there was a thriving black market in turtle eggs and meat and people were poaching for profit. 

Says Sherman, “They believed the eggs to be an aphrodisiac and were eating the eggs like Viagra.”

The "Brave Turtle People", says Sherman, understood extinction but the poachers felt it interfered with their livelihood and the local economy.  But finally the two camps reached an accord.

For the past 15 years Sherman’s 501 (c) (3) non-profit Save the Turtles has been sending money to a dedicated and aware community group in Parismina to which the turtles’ survival continues to be of great importance.

Says Sherman, “We know their work first-hand. Local villagers, men and women patrol the beach at night protecting nesting sea turtles from poachers who hide in the jungle and come up by boat in the rivers. The poachers kill the turtles for meat and rob their eggs to sell on the street in cities and towns.” 

She adds, “Protecting turtles and their right to survive  has become dangerous work; an activist was murdered a couple of years ago and recently two turtle patrollers were assaulted at other projects along the Caribbean.”

“Nevertheless,” she explains, “Save the Turtles, Inc. is dedicated to protecting sea turtles in critical habitat areas by awarding grants to community-based programs, assisting with salaries for the locals who patrol the beach at night protecting nesting turtles from those who would hunt them for meat and eggs

A recent grant helped the project pay for four patrollers for 25 nights.

A small, all-volunteer organization,  the donations they receive from Sherman’s group “are streamlined to worthy conservation projects, mostly in Costa Rica although we have financially assisted in the rescue of sea turtles in emergency situations such as the BP oil spill in the U.S.”

Save the Turtles has a board of five, (J.Lane, J.Sorensen, A. Givens and B. Christensen), which does its best to raise money to help save Sea Turtles. None of them receive any salary but instead specifically send the money donated to helping preserve the lives of Hawksbill, Leatherback, and Green turtles, which are defenseless against those who would exploit them.

 

A few fascinating facts about Sea Turtles:

1. They’ve been around for a very, very long time.
The oldest known sea turtle fossils date back about 150 million years, making them some of the oldest creatures on Earth. Just for some context, dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago:

2. They really love to travel.
Leatherback sea turtles can travel more than 10,000 miles every year:

3. For sea turtles, home is where the heart is.
When it's time to lay their eggs, female sea turtles return to the same nesting grounds where they were born:

4. They can hold their breath for a very (very, very) long time.
Green sea turtles can stay underwater for up to five hours, but their feeding dives usually only last five minutes or less:

5. They can grow to be suuuuuper heavy.
Leatherback sea turtles can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Just look at this behemoth:

6. Their eggs look amazingly like pingpong balls.
But they're not, so don’t try to play with them! Females lay up to 150 eggs every two to three years. A couple months later, tiny turtles emerge:

7. And for the new hatchlings, it really is survival of the fittest.
It is estimated that only one hatchling in a thousand will make it to adulthood. Whether it's the treacherous journey from nest to ocean or the predatory dangers of the open sea, it’s a cruel, cruel world out there for these youngsters:

8. Male sea turtles spend their entire lives at sea.
Since they don’t have to return to land to lay eggs, males almost never leave the ocean. This can make it difficult to keep track of population numbers.

10. Their gender depends on how hot or cold their environment was while they were in their eggs.
During incubation, sex is determined by the temperature of the surrounding environment. Warm temperatures tend to produce more female hatchlings, whereas cooler temps result in males:

11. They’re in deep trouble and it's our fault.
There are seven species of sea turtles, six of which are either threatened or endangered. Humans pose the biggest threat to a sea turtle's survival, which contributes to problems such as entanglement, habitat loss and consumption of their eggs and meat: