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March 27, 2002 -- During Lent, when observant Catholics eat fish instead of red meat, many Mexicans and Mexican Americans make a feast out of sea turtles. But conservationists in southern and Baja California are campaigning to ban the consumption of the turtles, which are not fish, but an endangered species of reptile. The San Diego-based international conservation organization Wildcoast has even written a letter to Pope John Paul II asking him to declare that sea turtles are meat, not fish. For All Things Considered, NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports from the California-Mexico border.
In Tijuana, you can find sea turtles cooked a variety of ways -- barbecued, boiled or stuffed in tacos. The most popular way to eat sea turtle is in soup. The meat is grilled and seasoned with spices, boiled with tomatoes and onions in a broth for seven hours, then served right in its own shell, explains Manuel Denis, a vendor at an open-air seafood market in downtown Tijuana.
The green sea turtle population has been hit hardest by poachers who value the turtle for its eggs and meat.
The soup is greasy and oily, he admits, and the meat is chewy and pungent. But its allure is also wrapped up in Mexican folklore: Supposedly sea turtles are a tonic and an aphrodisiac. Denis brags about having chopped off a sea turtle's flipper to drink the fresh blood -- a ritual said to increase virility.
Poaching, selling and eating sea turtle meat is illegal in Mexico and in the United States, with penalties of up to 12 years in jail. Yet the black market in sea turtles, or caguama, as they're known, is thriving.
Caguama is sold on the beach, on the streets, and at fancy restaurants. The going price in Mexico these days is 400 pesos, or $20 a pound, making sea turtle feasts a luxury for the well-to-do on both sides of the border. Wildcoast conservationist Aaron Quintanar says the demand is highest right now, around Semana Santa, or Holy Week.
Biologist Wallace J. Nichols measures a dead loggerhead found on Isla Magdalena, Baja California Sur. Photo courtesy Wildcoast
It's a part of the culture, says Quintanar: "People in Mexico abstain from eating red meat and what happens is a mistaken belief that turtle is a fish. Turtle is a reptile and therefore is red meat and not appropriate for Easter meals."
Wildcoast's biologists and fishermen report that poachers kill 35,000 sea turtles each year in the waters of Baja California. Quintanar says despite decades of trying to protect sea turtles and their eggs, the population has been dwindling.
Conservationists estimate that in the next two weeks, between 5,000 and 7,000 turtles will be slaughtered to meet the black market demand in Tijuana, and the growing black market demand in San Diego and Los Angeles.
Some local fishermen in Baja are banding together as the Grupo Tortuguero to go after poachers and monitor sea turtles that travel there from around the world to spawn. To curb demand, the group and the Wildcoast team are running public service announcements throughout Southern California and into Tijuana, urging listeners not to eat endangered sea turtles.
Sea turtle defenders hope the pope also will soon come to their aid. So far, there's been no response from the Vatican. But conservationists say there's still a chance the pope might deliver the message himself when he visits Mexico City in June.
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