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Alarm As Hundreds Of Dead Sea Turtles Wash Ashore In El Salvador

January 29, 2014

Conservationists and government authorities are pointing their fingers in very different directions following a recent die-off of sea turtles, hundreds of which have washed up on El Salvador’s shoreline in recent weeks.

In mid October, fishers operating along a Pacific beach called El Pimental, in the department of La Paz, reported finding some 100 dead turtles in a single day. Partially-decomposed corpses have also littered the beaches of San Diego, El Amatal and Toluca in the nearby department of La Libertad.

Officially, more than 200 turtles died during a troubling three-week span that began in late September, the Ministerio de Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (MARN) reported late last month. Environmental groups suspect the real number of turtle deaths is higher still. Most of the dead animals were “olive ridley” and “green” turtles, according to MARN. Two other sea turtle species, “leatherbacks” and “hawksbills,” are also present in El Salvador.

MARN believes the cause of the problem is “red tide,” a toxic algae bloom that has been present the past few months off Central America’s western coastline. Resarchers at the Universidad de El Salvador confirmed the government’s theory by testing approximately a dozen deceased turtles. The animals were found to contain high levels of saxitoxin, a powerful neurotoxin associated with algae blooms. “The laboratory results confirmed our hypothesis, which is that the turtles died as a result of a toxic algae bloom. We’re likely to see even more dead turtles wash up on El Salvador’s shores in the coming days,” MARN Deputy Minister Lina Pohl explained during an Oct. 22 press conference.

Dep. Health Minister Eduardo Espinoza, also present during the briefing, said the red tide is occurring far enough offshore so as not to pose a risk to humans, who can be sickened, for example, if they eat saxitoxin-contaminated shellfish. “They haven’t found [saxitosins] in concentrations high enough to affect human health,” he said.

“Passing the buck”

Not everyone is convinced by the government’s red tide theory. Some conservation groups suspect that shrimp trawlers may be the real culprit behind the die off. Trawling, a controversial technique whereby fishing boats use massive nets to basically scoop all they can out of the sea, is particularly harmful to sea turtles, which are air breathing creatures and can thus drown if they are inadvertently ensnared.

El Salvador’s fisheries authority, the Centro de Desarrollo de la Pesca y la Acuicultura (CENDEPESCA), has imposed regulations designed to protect turtles. Bottom trawling shrimp boats must keep a minimum distance from the shoreline. They are also required to use something called a turtle excluder device, or TED, which functions as a kind of escape hatch for trapped turtles. CENDEPSESCA says it carries out regular TED inspections. EL Salvador’s fishing industry, furthermore, has been certified for eight years running by the US Department of Commerce’s National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), CENDEPSESCA points out.

Critics of the industry, however, say not all boats comply with the regulations, which are imperfect at best and difficult to enforce. “It’s illogical that [the government] blames red tide when the turtles are showing up dead precisely during trawling season,” biodiversity specialist Rafael Vela of the Centro de Estudios de Tecnología Apropiada (CESTA), a San Salvador-based environmental group, told the daily Co Latino.

Vela accuses CENDEPESCA of “passing the buck,” saying it should do its own research on the turtle deaths rather than rely solely on MARN’s theories and conclusions. “No one wants to find the real reason behind the sea turtle deaths,” he said. “Water pollution and incidental capture seem to be the most explicable causes, but nobody wants to carry out real studies along those lines.”

Poachers and predators

Regardless of its cause, the recent die-off is hardly something El Salvador’s various sea turtle species can afford. All four turtle types appear of the influential “Red List” maintained by the UK-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The group classifies olive ridley turtles as “vulnerable” and green turtles as “endangered,” meaning they are “at high risk of extinction in the wild.” The status of leatherbacks and hawksbills is even more precarious: the IUCN lists both species as “critically endangered.”

Sea turtles face particular challenges when it comes to reproduction, even under the best of circumstances. Adult females nest along beaches and can lay between 75 and 200 eggs at a time. Very few of the hatchlings, however, survive. Some are eaten by predators – birds or mammals – before they even make it into the sea. Others lose their way (sometimes they are disoriented because of electric lights) and die from exposure. Those that do make it to the sea are also vulnerable to predators, pollutants and general exposure.

Human beings also have an appetite for sea turtles, particularly for the eggs, which the mother turtle – after depositing them in a shallow nest of sand – leaves unprotected for the two months they take to hatch. In 2009 El Salvador implemented a ban on the consumption, sale, and possession of eggs, other turtle parts and the turtles themselves. Some clandestine “tortugeros” (egg collectors), however, continue to operate. On Oct. 23 – just one day after MARN announced its sea turtle toxicology report – Salvadoran police arrested four people (in two separate operations) who possessed more than 1,100 sea turtle eggs between them. MARN took the opportunity once again to ask that people “abstain from extracting, consuming and selling sea turtle eggs or other products derived from these species.”

Making matters even worse for sea turtles is that the few individuals which do survive poachers, pollutants and predators (either before or just after they hatch) must then wait at least two decades to reach sexual maturity – plenty of time to fall victim to a fishing net or toxic algae bloom.

“The death of these turtles is a shame because it takes them 20 years before they’re ready to deposit their eggs on the beach. For that reason this is a great loss,” José Leonidas Gómez, a conservationist working on a project called “Yo Protejo mi Mundo” (I Protect my World) told the newswire Agence France Presse last month.

(This article originally appeared November 2013 in LADB)

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