Wallace J. Nichols, Kristin E. Bird, Salvador Garcia, Community-based research and its application to sea turtle conservation in Bahía Magdalena, BCS, Mexico, Marine Turtle Newsletter, Volume 89, 2000, Pages 4-7.
Five species of sea turtle are known to inhabit the coastal waters of Mexico. The two most common species to frequent the waters within and adjacent to Bahía Magdalena are the eastern Pacific green, or black, turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the Pacific loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta). Other species include the olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles. Sea turtles are an important part of the cultural history of northwestern Mexico. While overuse was largely responsible for their decline (Cliffton et al. 1982), it is the cultural connection to the animals that may in fact lead to their recovery. As in many fishing communities in the region, the multitude of uses of sea turtles by families living near Bahía Magdalena (a large mangrove estuarine complex on the Pacific side of the Baja California peninsula; Figure 1) have been an important part of coastal living. Green and loggerhead turtles are the species that were most commonly caught by the fishers of Puerto San Carlos, Puerto Magdalena and Lopez Mateos, the three largest communities on the shores of Bahía Magdalena (Nichols unpublished data).
Turtle use originated as subsistence harvest, but over time this use broadened into a directed fishery (Caldwell 1963). In addition to the food, medicinal uses and products provided to an individual fisher’s household, there were economic benefits associated with the sale of turtle meat to the market.
For many years, the taking of turtles was largely unregulated, and the turtles seemed inexhaustibly abundant (Caldwell & Caldwell 1962) and as many as 375,000 turtles were harvested between 1966 and 1970. As populations began to decline, size limits and closed seasons were enacted. However, by the mid-1970’s and early 1980’s it became increasingly obvious that such large-scale harvest was not sustainable and that management schemes were ineffective (Cliffton et al. 1982). Broad legal protection of sea turtles in Mexico came with an Executive Order issued in 1990 by the Mexican Ministry of Fisheries and the Ministry of Urban Development and Ecology (now SEMARNAP). The legislation states that the Mexican Federal Government strictly prohibits the pursuit, capture, and extraction of any species of sea turtle on any beaches or in any federal waters. Article Three specifically states that:
However, the taking of turtles within Bahía Magdalena continues presently despite the passing of these strict laws prohibiting their use (Nichols & Gardner in press). Compliance is at a minimum within the community primarily due to the weakness of enforcement measures and the strong traditional use of turtles during holidays and special events. Additionally, incidental capture of sea turtles continues to occur in gillnets of local fishers, both in and outside the bay.
There has been much confusion over the legality of taking turtles for private household consumption. Many people that we had discussions with in the Magdalena Bay area believed that it was legal to take a turtle that had been accidentally caught in their nets, especially if it was freshly dead. Many people were not aware of the details of the legislation protecting sea turtles, and therefore did not consider that they were doing anything wrong by consuming turtles at home. There remains a need for enforcement of such legislation as well as a program to clearly explain the laws and their ecological purposes. As in many developing countries, there are socio-economic constraints to proper enforcement of laws involving endangered species. This is especially true in Baja California where communities are often separated by hundreds of miles. The goals of our research include the involvement of fishing communities in the development of conservation projects, the involvement of local students and fishers in the collection of data and the public sharing of research results on a regular basis. Community meetings serve as an outlet to share information on the biology of sea turtles as well as their protected status. Participation in community-based research is considered one component of an adaptive management approach to resource conservation.
The Community-Based Research Approach: With sea turtle populations continuing to decline globally, it is imperative that we constantly evaluate conservation strategies. There have been great advancements in our understanding of sea turtle biology and behaviour and the science of conservation is continually developing new tools. However, the major causes of sea turtle decline in many parts of the world, including northwestern Mexico, stem from anthropogenic factors and the human dimension may be the area of research where most conservation gains can be made. We have documented the ways that fishers have negatively impacted sea turtle populations, but what is often overlooked is how these same individuals can contribute to conservation. As researchers become increasingly aware of the cultural motivations involved in sea turtle exploitation, it becomes critical to shift our conservation efforts in the direction of the people at local levels.
By combining the knowledge gained through scientific investigations with the insights of the social sciences, we stand a much better chance of succeeding in our recovery efforts. Sea turtle conservation is multidimensional, as the causes of declines are multifaceted. Therefore, it is our responsibility to advocate adaptive management techniques. Feldmann (1994) states that even if the authorities devise strategies to protect resources, “such strategies may be ineffective if they are incompatible with customary or traditional rights recognised at the community level” (p.397). This dilemma is particularly true in the case of sea turtle conservation in Bahía Magdalena.
Community-based strategies are not new to sea turtle conservation. For the past decade local involvement in turtle conservation efforts has been increasing as evidenced by the numbers of symposium papers and reports on the topic. Such approaches take a variety of forms including community monitoring of lighting practices on nesting beaches, community-based stranding networks and beach patrols, self-enforcement by fishing communities, formal sharing of traditional knowledge (Nabhan et al. 1999) and the systematic consideration of interviews with fishers (Tambiah 1999). Additionally, sea turtle conservation has become a main attraction in some ecotourism initiatives and other forms of sustainable development (Campbell 1998; Govan 1998; Vieitas et al. 1999).
One of the fundamental assumptions of community-based conservation is that individuals will necessarily choose to care for the animals and resources in which they have a vested interest (Mast 1999). Bromley (1994) states that “community-based conservation seeks to locate arenas of mutuality between those who want biological resources to be managed on a sustained basis and those who must rely on these same biological resources for the bulk of their livelihood” (p. 428). In most cases, this presents a difficult process of consensus building. However, in the case of the conservation of sea turtles in Bahía Magdalena, it appears that the two different values that Bromley described are not so unrelated. In our experiences, the local fishers have demonstrated an interest in conservation for ecological and aesthetic reasons, as well as to preserve a source of their traditional livelihood and an occasional source of food.
Signs of Success: Because of the intimate relationship between the turtles and the Bahía Magdalena communities, the use of community-based conservation strategies is extremely important. Developing the knowledge and trust of the fishers of Bahía Magdalena has been crucial to recent research and conservation efforts. Because of the illegality of harvesting turtles, community members have been very suspicious of any questions about the topic and have been quiet and reserved in their discussions. It has taken a great deal of time and patience to establish rapport within the community. However, a dialog has begun and the results are encouraging. This dialog is crucial to the success of conservation projects in the area. It has allowed us access to a more accurate understanding of the issues surrounding sea turtle recovery, as well as provided us with a forum for making recommendations. Involving local knowledge has been beneficial to our research objectives. Some fishers have provided us with advice in finding the best locations to capture turtles for sampling and tagging. Others have taken us to locations where they have seen and/or caught turtles. Local education and communication via town meetings has led to fishers providing valuable data such as tag returns and fisheries-related mortality information. Of note during the summer 1999 field season were tag returns from Japan; Michoacan, Mexico and California, USA. Fishers indicated that they typically discard tags due to fears of legal repercussions. Positive responses to those fishermen who do offer flipper tags will hopefully foster trust and lead to a further exchange of information. Furthermore, we have heard from increasing numbers of fishermen who return tagged turtles to the water unharmed, after recording tag numbers and capture locations. Our most skilled research team members are former turtle hunters.
The Baja California Sea Turtle Conservation Network (Grupo Tortuguero de Baja California), a grass-roots organization formed to promote sea turtle recovery in the region, represents a crucial component of sea turtle recovery in northwestern Mexico. The first meeting of this group was held in 1999 and was attended by NGO’s, representatives of several local fishing co-operatives, governmental institutions, members of academia, and field researchers. This meeting represented one of the first interdisciplinary co-operative sea turtle management attempts in the region (Nichols & Arcas 1999). The group will meet annually and provide a forum for discussion of new research results, management ideas and training workshops. In January 2000 we expect nearly 100 members of Baja California fishing communities to participate in the second annual meeting of the Baja California Sea Turtle Conservation Network. At this meeting a variety of topics related to sea turtle biology and conservation will be discussed and workshops on data collection, turtle identification and measurement techniques will follow. Biologists from sea turtle nesting beaches in Michoacan and members of the Seri Indian community will offer their perspectives on sea turtle declines. Fishers attending this meeting will form the core of the Network and will share the information in their communities. For many, this meeting represents the first time that they have been actively involved in conservation and research.
While quantitative signs of sea turtle recovery may be years off, these results and the development of community-based initiatives encourage us.
Conclusions and Recommendations: Although the legislation is in place to protect Baja California’s sea turtles enforcement is prohibitively expensive in such a vast area. Laws and enforcement have not adequately abated harvest of and declines in turtle populations, especially in rural areas where the laws are misunderstood or disregarded and enforcement is infrequent. Community-based solutions should be considered in concert with standard vigilance practices. Such an approach can lead to a sense of responsibility for the resource and feelings of empowerment through their direct contribution to the conservation of the turtles that inhabit the coastal waters near their home. Murphee (1994) states that “conservationists now often prefer treating local people and their behaviours as a most effective vehicle for furthering their aims rather than unfortunate stumbling blocks” (p. 404). In order to successfully implement community-based strategies, the local communities must be provided with ongoing technical assistance, current information on the status of the populations and timely assessments of successful actions. In other words, the community-based approach must be a two-way process.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to the communities of Puerto San Carlos, Puerto Magdalena and Lopez Mateos for their immense contributions to this work. We especially thank the hermanos Sarrabias who have supported sea turtle conservation and research since the first day of fieldwork and Javier Miramontes who found and contributed the tag from Japan. Special thanks to Luis Calderon and Susan Gardner at the SFS Centro para Estudios Costeros and to all of the students who contribute to these projects. Thanks to the Wallace Research Foundation for funding our program.
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