I studied the in-water anthropogenic impacts on sea turtles, origins of sea turtles on foraging and developmental areas, their migration routes, and described regionally appropriate conservation needs. Sea turtles inhabiting Baja California waters originate on distant beaches in Japan, Hawaii, and southern Mexico. Results from genetic analyses, flipper tagging and satellite telemetry indicate loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) feeding along Baja California’s coast are born in Japan and make a transpacific developmental migration of more than 20,000 km, encompassing the entire North Pacific Ocean and that East Pacific green turtles (Chelonia mydas) originate on and return to rookeries in Michoacan, and the Islas Revillagigedo, Mexico. Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), once the target of a lucrative fishery for their shell, are now extremely scarce and only juveniles were encountered. The region’s importance to the biology of sea turtles, regionally and Pacific-wide, warrants urgent conservation action.
While protected legally, sea turtles are subject to furtive hunting and incidental catch. Coastal development, pollution, and boat collision are secondary threats. Annual consumption of sea turtles in the region is estimated at between 7,800 and 30,00 animals. Sea turtles are eaten regularly in most coastal communities and turtles are considered an irreplaceable traditional food. The decline of sea turtles in these waters has cost us both ecologically and culturally.
Sea turtle recovery in Baja California, as all conservation activities, will be a matter of cultural and social evolution. For recovery to occur, strong, community-based incentives and educational programs are needed. In the near term, increased enforcement efforts, monitoring of mortality, and establishment of sea turtle sanctuaries are among the solutions. Without expansion to include community-specific initiatives such efforts may be futile.
A long-term, multi-faceted sea turtle “conservation mosaic” program has been launched, consisting of community-based research on life history and population biology, an international education and public outreach campaign, regional sea turtle conservation areas, a monitoring and stranding network, and several policy initiatives that will permanently protect sea turtles and their habitat.
In my first meeting as a graduate student I sat on one side of a large rectangular table in Room 1 in the basement of the Biological Sciences East Building at the University of Arizona. Facing me were an ichthyologist (Dr. Donald Thomson), a wildlife ecologist (Dr. Cecil Schwalbe), and an emeritus sea turtle biologist (Dr. John Hendrickson). After presenting my proposal to study the biology and conservation of sea turtles in Baja California for my doctoral research I was surprised by their response.
“There really aren’t enough turtles left to accomplish your goals in a reasonable amount of time,” I was told.
With that we set out on what has become nearly a decade of sea turtle research, conservation and education that has reached south to Central America and west to the waters off Japan.
Since that day my advisors have provided enthusiastic research advice, constructive criticism and professional guidance as my efforts have been seemingly guided by the wind. I first thank all of them and especially Jeff Seminoff for their encouragement and friendships.
In the field, especially during the first months of research, the help of many experienced fishermen probably saved my life. Left to my own devices it is likely that I’d be tangled in a mass of turtle net adrift on the sea, somewhere between Mexico and Japan. I cannot adequately explain the patience of the men who assisted this project. Mil gracias to all of the fishermen who have taught me, and who have opened their boats, homes, kitchens, and minds to me.
Antonio and Bety Resendiz have been wonderful colleagues to work with, but also role models and friends. Their commitment to the conservation of marine resources in Bahia de los Angeles sets a standard few can meet but all aspire to.
A large, diverse group of people, friends, family, organizations and foundations has contributed in many ways this work. To all of them I owe my confidence in and commitment to the belief that in learning and education lie the restoration and conservation of much of the world’s biological diversity, wilderness, and natural resources. As there are literally thousands of names to mention, and at the risk of leaving one out I’ll simply say, thank you.
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