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By Genevieve Bookwalter
SANTA CRUZ -- Two Santa Cruz scientists have pinpointed a Baja California beach as the sandy graveyard of more dead sea turtles than anywhere else in the world, and they blame poor fishing practices for the deaths.
Next week one of the researchers plans to visit Mexico City and ask the Mexican government to create an ocean preserve to limit fishing off Baja California Sur to help stop the turtle deaths.
"Our goal is to convert that knowledge into some kind of action that makes that part of the ocean safer for animals," said Davenport researcher Wallace J. Nichols with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
"We weren't counting them just for the heck of it," Nichols said. "There was an agenda, and that was to make sure these animals don't go extinct."
Nichols and UC Santa Cruz graduate student Hoyt Peckham have spent the past five years counting dead loggerhead sea turtles along the 43-kilometer Playa San Lazaro, near Lopez Mateos in Baja California Sur, Mexico.
During that half-decade, researchers counted nearly 3,000 loggerhead carcasses on the beach. Peckham and Nichols estimated that the two fishing fleets in nearby waters killed 1,500 to nearly 3,000 loggerhead turtles each year. Those deaths were caused by long lines and gill nets on the sea floor, Nichols said, which hook or trap the turtles and stop them from surfacing to breathe.
"We saw what are apparently the highest documented
stranding and fisheries bycatch rates in the world," said Peckham, lead author of a research paper published last week in a special issue of Endangered Species Research.
Visiting the pristine Playa San Lazaro is not easy: Scientists must take a boat across the bay from Lopez Mateos, then four-wheel drive on a "cardboard highway" over barrier-island sand dunes to the breakers. The cardboard was put down years ago to help trucks gain traction as they navigate the sand.
Nichols spotted the magnitude of the turtle deaths when he first visited Playa San Lazaro 10 years ago. He and Peckham are now working with local fishermen to build tourism based on seeing the turtles, making them more valuable alive than dead, Nichols said.
Nichols plans to petition the Mexican government to create an ocean preserve limiting fishing in the waters off Playa San Lazaro, similar to the reserves in place off of the California coast.
The new research draws attention to the devastating effect small fisheries can have in biological "hot spots," Nichols said. Until now, he said, conservation efforts focused more on the effects of larger fisheries than small ones.
Peckham saw the findings as an opportunity. "By working with just a handful of fishermen to diminish their bycatch, we can save hundreds of turtles," Peckham said.
Contact Genevieve Bookwalter at 706-3286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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