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A decade ago, when Wallace J. Nichols first showed up at Isla Magdalena, on the Pacific coast of Baja California, it was a depressing scene. He counted about 240 dead turtles washed up along the beach.
Most were loggerheads (Caretta caretta), which had begun their days on nesting beaches in Japan. About 300 turtles still wash up each year; when we visit Isla Magdalena in early August, there is another carcass to haul to one of the "turtle cemeteries" beneath the dunes. By working with local fishermen, Nichols and graduate student Hoyt Peckham of UC Santa Cruz, have found out why this slaughter is happening and how to reduce it. The problem is that a burgeoning drug trade in the area may be undoing their good work.
Through radio-tracking and aerial surveys, Nichols and Peckham have shown that juvenile and immature loggerheads congregate in a spot just off the Baja coast, where they feed mostly on swimming red crabs. The area is also frequented by small fishing boats, which set gill nets for halibut and lay long lines with multiple hooks for sharks. Both snare loggerheads, and this kills many more turtles than the industrial-scale fisheries in Hawaii, which are closely regulated to reduce encounters with migrating turtles.
It does not have to be this way. Working with Peckham and Nichols, gill-net fishermen from the nearby village of Puerto López Mateos have found they get better catches if they stay within 8 miles of the shore, away from the turtle hot spot. Most fishermen from this village are now doing so.
López Mateos is only one of several villages on this stretch of coast, and elsewhere it is harder to engage with the fishermen. The main problem is an epidemic of crack cocaine and methamphetamine abuse, fed into these communities by drug traffickers who use the villages as stopovers. "Fishermen are really unlikely to think about sustainable seafood if their main concern is their next fix," says Nichols.
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"We stand at the edge of the sea. We say nothing. We breathe its salt, its oxygen. We see its... continue