Not every scientist is comfortable being an agent of social change. But it's no stretch for Hoyt Peckham and other researchers affiliated with Pro Peninsula, a San Diego-based conservation group.
They see it as their duty to protect the endangered loggerhead sea turtles they study along remote stretches of Baja California.
“The last thing I wanted to do was to document their extinction,” Peckham said.
Peckham and his mentors, a clique of maverick ocean ecologists, will take center stage today as the world's most prominent sea turtle experts begin a symposium in Loreto, Mexico.
The scientists associated with Pro Peninsula will join Mexican fishermen to tell their unusual story of collaboration over more than 15 years on behalf of loggerheads. Their teamwork became pivotal when Peckham concluded that some of the fishermen were inadvertently killing hundreds of turtles each year from longline fishing.
Peckham was the chief negotiator for a landmark turtle conservation accord signed last fall between Groupo Tortuguero, a Mexican environmental group overseen by Pro Peninsula, and a fishing cooperative near Magdalena Bay on Baja's Pacific coast.
The cooperative's members agreed to give up their longline fishing gear. In return, Pro Peninsula and the Ocean Conservancy raised $10,000 for them to buy less harmful gear, such as traps and surface nets.
“We usually measure success in saving several or a few dozen turtles,” Peckham said. “Realistically, I doubt I'll have the chance to achieve something of this magnitude the rest of my conservation career.”
Longline fishing vessels typically deploy several thousand baited hooks that can extend for miles, targeting sharks, tuna and swordfish.
Sea turtles, which must surface periodically to breathe, can drown after consuming the bait and getting hooked.
The breakthrough turtle agreement Sept. 25 resulted from scientific discoveries and a village leader's decision to give up his lucrative longline gear to reduce loggerhead deaths.
When Peckham first went to the Magdalena Bay area six years ago, he wanted to study the nuances of the turtles' movements and feeding habits. But he soon noticed that local fishermen were accidentally hooking many loggerheads and throwing the carcasses overboard.
To document the number of turtles being killed, he and other researchers gathered the carcasses that washed ashore and arranged them like poker chips along the beach so they could be counted and photographed.
Peckham was able to show that a cooperative of about 80 fishermen using hand lines and small skiffs called pangas was killing almost 1,000 turtles every year – slightly more than the death toll caused by larger fishing vessels in the entire North Pacific.
“It was mind-boggling,” Peckham said.
Still, the panga fleet's fishing method didn't explain why the number of turtles killed around Magdalena Bay was so high. Peckham later found that many juvenile loggerheads were concentrating near the bay to feed on red crabs and other prey.
Then the deadly combination became clear: The cooperative was using longlines in a turtle hot spot.
Peckham shared his discoveries with the fishermen, who had no idea their gear was bringing loggerheads closer to extinction.
“One fishermen asked me: 'How can sea turtles be endangered when I catch 40 in a day?' ” Peckham recalled.
The leader of the fishing cooperative, Efraín de la Paz Regalado, whose nickname is Nayla, initially was reluctant to change fishing methods. But he had a change of heart after realizing the full extent of his group's impact on the loggerheads.
“It took me by surprise,” said Peckham, who had slowly built a friendship with Nayla.
“That sense of personal honor is really important to people in Baja,” he added. “Nayla has a personal sense of pride that he was able to have this huge impact.”
To reinforce the work by Peckham and other members of Pro Peninsula, the Ocean Conservancy plans on Tuesday to launch a program called SEE Turtles, which is aimed at building an eco-tourism market for loggerheads. The conservancy hopes to give fishermen an economic incentive to continue safeguarding loggerheads.
Pro Peninsula's loggerhead success is built on a foundation of science and trust among Baja locals. The group's approach was pioneered in the early 1990s by Jeffrey Seminoff and J. Nichols, who were then graduate students at the University of Arizona.
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