18 May 2010

Saving sea turtles, creating jobs, changing lives

Two years ago we launched a project called SEE Turtles with the straightforward goal of saving sea turtles by helping people to experience the joy of a wild sea turtle while generating income and work for people living with endangered sea turtle populations.

I teamed up with Brad Nahill, whose background in environmental economics and ecotourism complemented my own as a marine biologist and we picked three important locations to begin the work. We knew that many local organizations sought visitors and volunteers to combat poaching and to provide alternative incomes, but lacked the resources to make that happen.  We could provide that marketing reach by combining their efforts within a single portal, designed to find would be turtle lovers looking for different and meaningful travel.  We partnered with strong organizations in Baja California, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Trinidad and Tobago and set about connecting people  with the trip of their life.

We have now reached a milestone of sorts, having generated more than $100,000 in new income in the communities where we work, used to expand protection efforts and connect fiscal well being with restoring these endangered animals.  To date, more than 200 travelers have visited nesting beaches and foraging areas and volunteers have covered more than 500 work shifts, saving the projects thousands of dollars.

To be sure, tourism has its downside.  There's the carbon footprint, plastic footprint, cultural footprint, and the potential negative impact of hoards of visitors on the wildlife itself.  SEE Turtles, like many others, works to redirect would be travelers to places where their footprint is minimized and promotes responsible turtle-watching guidelines.

The odds are stacked against sea turtles, whether the threat is in the form of fishing nets, plastic pollution, beach development of consumption of their eggs and flesh.  But as Brad points out, “when dollar spent visiting a turtle conservation project helps to improve conditions for sea turtles that helps show that these amazing creatures are a valuable resource to protect.”

To celebrate these successes, SEE Turtles is offering a free trip to visit a turtle conservation project in Costa Rica or Baja California Sur, Mexico.  One winner will receive a free spot on an upcoming tour run by ecotourism companies EcoTeach or Baja Expeditions.  To enter, visit SEEturtles.org and sign up for the monthly e-newsletter.  The contest runs through August 31st, 2010 and the winner will be chosen at random in early September.

An added benefit is that when people come back from these kinds of trips they are even more dedicated to local conservation work.  Connecting with a wild animal as ancient as a sea turtle on its terms can be transformative, for the visitor, for the residents and for the sea turtles.

-Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, Co-founder

12 May 2010

DISCOVER: Beyond Politics: Oil, Water, Shrimp, and Sea Turtles

This is a guest post at DISCOVER Magazine from Wallace J. Nichols, a marine scientist and oceans conservationist who in 1998 founded the Grupo Tortuguero, an international grassroots movement dedicated to restoring Pacific sea turtles and to sustainable management of ocean fisheries. He currently works with several universities and organizations to protect the oceans, including Ocean Revolution, the California Academy of Sciences and SEEturtles.org.
My brave friend Leilani Munter called from the field to report that the National Wildlife Federation and CNN had documented the first sea turtle caught in a slick at sea, gasping for air through an iridescent sheen. Tragically, just as nesting season for a number of the Gulf of Mexico’s sea turtle species is set to begin, these highly endangered animals become the poster species of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Soon, if not already, adult male and female turtles will gather in shallow coastal waters, mate and prepare to nest, precisely where oil is accumulating. The pregnant females will scuttle across beaches at night to lay eggs, just as they’ve done for millions of years, but these beaches will be different—they will be blacked with oil. In a few short weeks, a new generation of hatchlings will emerge from the sand and make their way across oily beaches to an oily sea where tar balls and slicks will make their already-long odds of survival even longer. As they mature, they will have to rise through oil slicks to breathe and survive by eating oil-coated animals, algae and seagrass. While sea turtle will be among the most recognizable victims, they won’t be alone. Many species of birds, fish, invertebrates and plants will fare just as badly.

Even before the spill, sea turtles had it tough. (more…)

03 May 2010

Sea Turtles & Oil Spills

Its hard to remain optimistic about the future of wildlife when oil spills like the current one get worse by the day with little hope of quick improvement.  We've talked about how oil can affect sea turtles through global warming (when its burned) and plastic (when oil is shaped into bags) on this blog before, but we've yet to delve into the murky world of oil extraction.  In the history of the environmental movement, oil spills, while tragic, have helped to spread awareness of the need to shift away from fossil fuels.

From the spill of California in the 60's which led to a ban on drilling off that coast, to the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, few things have captured public attention like an animal covered in oil.  We can only hope that this spill helps efforts to transition away from oil, though President Obama's statements to date don't give anyone the impression he's ready to back down from increased drilling off our coasts.  We agree with this great article on Grist about how the President could use the spill as an opportunity to move in a new direction.

So how are the turtles being affected by this disaster?  Recently we added a new page on our site about ocean pollution, prophetically the first two photos relate to oil and spills.  This page notes that oil affects both "convergence zones" at sea where juvenile turtles often live as well as nesting beaches.  Turtles can also ingest tar balls that can damage airways and lungs.  NOAA has a good fact sheet on turtles and oil spills.

Initial reports show 23 turtles washing up dead in Mississippi, though its not clear if the spill is to blame.  I also just heard a media report on the radio where the reporter claimed to watch sea turtles feeding on dead fish covered in oil.  The effects of this spill are likely to linger for a long time, according to turtle expert Peter Meylan, "The same factors than concentrate oil appear to concentrate posthatchlings, so the potential to lose some significant portion of future contributions to important nesting populations of several species is on the horizon." That could affect young green and hawksbill turtles nesting in Mexico and the Caribbean.  The spill is also likely to affect the peak of the nesting season for Kemp's ridleys, already hard hit by entanglement in fishing gear.

We'll be posting more updates on how turtles are being affected by this spill as they come in.  In the meantime, we've been asked how people can help.  Here are some suggestions:

-Support conservation groups working in that region as they work overtime to save affected wildlife.  Examples are: the Gulf Restoration Network or Restore America's Estuaries.

-Let President Obama know that expanded drilling is not the answer to our energy needs.  Defenders of Wildlife has information on how to leave a comment on the White House comment line.

-Tell your Senators to keep drilling out of the climate bill.

-Demand that the cleanup response be accelerated here.

-If you are in the area and happen to come across an affected turtle, here is a guide on what to do by WIDECAST.

-Follow updates and find more actions you can take at Surfrider's blog Oil On the Beach.