Nichols, WJ, C Safina, and L Grossman. 2003. Divine Intervention: Lobbying the Vatican to Save Sea Turtles. Marine Turtle Newsletter 99: 29.
Wallace J. Nichols1,2, Carl Safina3 & Lisa Grossman4
1Wildcoast International Conservation Team, POB 324, Davenport, California, 95017, USA
2Department of Herpetology, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, California 94118, USA
3Living Oceans Program, National Audubon Society, Islip, New York 11751, USA
4American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York 10024, USA
On July 8, 2002 a letter signed by 63 conservation and spiritual leaders from 13 countries was sent to Pope John Paul II at the Vatican asking his assistance in protecting endangered sea turtles. It read:
"His Excellency, Pope John Paul II
Vatican City, Rome ITALY
July 8, 2002
We are writing to you on behalf of one of Earth's creatures that does not have a voice of its own.
We are writing to you on behalf of ancient mariners that have long graced our planet with their presence.
We are writing to you on behalf of gentle giants that have touched many human hearts throughout time and across cultures.
We are writing to you on behalf of thousands that could be saved by a few simple words from Your Holiness.
We are writing to you on behalf of the sea turtles, which are consumed during the Lenten season.
All sea turtle species face extinction and are protected by the national laws of many countries. During the Lenten season, devout Catholics around the world consume thousands of turtles as a substitute for meat. Turtles, however, are not fish. They are air-breathing reptiles (still reliant on dry land for the bearing and incubating of their young), and their flesh is meat, and therefore does not fulfill strict Lenten requirements.
If people refrained from eating turtles during the Lenten season, it would help stabilize dwindling sea turtle populations around the world. We humbly beseech you to clarify that sea turtles are not appropriate food during Lent. Perhaps you can offer a prayer for the sea turtles - a few words from Your Holiness would inform the entire Catholic community."
In many parts of the world sea turtles, as well as fresh water turtles and tortoises, are eaten during Catholic holidays when "meat" is prohibited but "fish"
is allowed. The tradition stems from a widespread interpretation that turtles are "fish." Though illegal in regions like northwestern Mexico, the ritual of eating turtle meat during holiday celebrations represents one of the main threats to sea turtle survival and a significant barrier to population recovery. In northwestern Mexico, during semana santa, the Holy Week preceding Easter, thousands of inland residents journey to coastal communities in search of sea turtles and other seafood. During this week alone, much of the conservation gains made during the year are negated.
For example, at a small estero in Bahía Magdalena, Baja California Sur, it was reported that one fisher caught 60 turtles during the weeks prior to semana santa to meet local demand. We have heard many reports of similar seasonal activities from around the world.
When the motivation to buy, sell or consume an endangered species includes a spiritual component, conservation becomes far more than just a matter of science and policy. For this reason we have attempted to enlist the Vatican's help. We realize that issues of inequality and poverty often underlie environmental problems. In this case, however, people are not consuming turtles out of necessity. Many coastal inhabitants have other more affordable, accessible, and legal ways to nourish themselves.
We feel that the Vatican could contribute to considerable conservation gains simply by clarifying that sea turtles are not fish and that their flesh is meat. We predict that such a pronouncement would significantly assist the recovery of several sea turtle populations.
To date we have received only a short communication from the Vatican that the letter was received. We will continue this campaign until a clarification is made.
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