Web Exclusive: Ridley Recovery

The year 2006 marked a major milestone in the recovery of the endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle. Mexican and U.S. scientists staged the largest single-day turtle release since the bi-national recovery project began three decades ago, helping two hundred forty thousand (240,000) turtle hatchlings wriggle across the sand and into the Gulf of Mexico. Even though sea turtle nestings on Texas and Mexico beaches soared to record highs in 2006, biologists are tempering jubilation with caution, saying current levels of funding and work must continue for the world’s most endangered sea turtle to fully recover. Tom Harvey has this report.

(Natural sound of surf)

This is the best part of the project, my favorite part, just helping out the babies a little bit more.

Jaime Peña is kneeling on the beach, just a few feet from the Gulf of Mexico. Before him is a plastic tray filled with Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle hatchlings, newborn turtles just four inches long. One by one, Peña places the hatchlings on the sand and watches them crawl into the sea.

As operations director for the project, I deal a lot with governments and permits and this and that, but this makes everything worthwhile and more.

Peña is a conservation biologist with the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville. He’s been with the sea turtle project since 1994 and is now the U.S. operations director for all the turtle recovery camps in Mexico.

In 1995, Dr. Patrick Birchfield, the U.S. field group coordinator, asked me to come for two months to Rancho Nuevo and I said sure, why not, you know, packed my stuff, I’m going to stay there at the beach for two months. But then I saw a nesting female, and like you say, it clicked. I immediately fell in love and right there and then was the moment that I realized that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

We are at Tepehuajes (TEH-PEH-WAH-HAYS), the northernmost turtle camp within the 125-kilometer stretch of beach where 90 percent of the world’s Ridley turtle population nests. Rancho Nuevo, just south of here, is ground zero for Ridley nesting. It was here in 1947 that Andres Herrera shot film that rocked the wildlife science world, showing an arribada or arrival of an estimated 40,000 female turtles on a single day. In the years that followed, however, human poachers and natural predators took an alarming toll on the Ridley. Nesting numbers steadily dropped to a record low of only 702 turtles in 1985, the dark days when many scientists believed nothing could stop the turtle’s headlong plunge toward extinction. Lately, things have improved, a lot, but it’s been no accident.

Natural sound: “Hay, esos tortugas…”

For three decades now, each spring and summer, scientists, graduate students and volunteers come to live in the turtle camps. They patrol the beaches, looking for tracks in the sand, signs of a nesting female. They carefully dig up the eggs and rebury them inside protected corrals, where they’re safe from poachers and predators. The work is hot, the conditions remote and primitive. But it’s paid off. This year, more than 100 Ridley turtles came to nest on Texas beaches, twice last year’s number, vindicating decades of work by U.S. scientists to establish a second nesting location in Texas. But Mexico remains the primary home for the species, where a record 12,000 Ridleys nested this year.

The turtle reaches sexual maturity at 10 years of age, so basically I’m seeing my daughters come back and nest. But I can only imagine how people like Jaime Ortiz, the camp coordinator here at Tepehaujes, feels. He has been doing this since 1978. And back in those days if you had a thousand turtles a year that was a lot. And we’re talking about 3,000 turtles in one day back on May 11. So it’s an incredible feeling to be part of this.

Although the U.S. has provided money and manpower, the Ridley recovery is happening on Mexican soil, where Mexican scientists and students play key roles. Octaviano Perez Tolentino supervises turtle recovery camps for the Mexican State of Tamaulipas.

TOLENTINO INTERVIEW BEGINS IN SPANISH, THEN ENGLISH TRANSLATOR AUDIO COMES UP: Tonight is a big event because all camps that are involved with the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle will release many, many turtles and he’s hoping that in 15 years these turtles will return to the same area to begin the nesting process.

The turtle camps needed more All Terrain Vehicles to patrol beaches and better facilities where workers could stay, things the governments couldn’t always provide. Help came from an unexpected source in 1995, when a new partner emerged on the scene.

It was a biologist out of Brownsville, Texas with the Gladys Porter Zoo that made a presentation to our seafood industry at one of our association meetings. And he explained to us how important it was to keep a balance in nature, and that if you lose a specie, it has an affect on another specie. And if we want to maintain a good shrimp stock out in the Gulf, we’ve got to maintain a healthy environment for all the animals out there.

Les Hodgson is co-owner of Marco Sales, a Brownsville shrimp wholesaler. Shrimpers had been blamed as one reason for the Kemp’s Ridley turtle’s decline, and in the 1990s they were required to start using Turtle Excluder Devices, holes in shrimp trawls that allow sea turtles to escape and avoid drowning. Hodgson began a crusade to get U.S. shrimpers into the Ridley recovery project. He approached Wild American Shrimp, the marketing group that represents shrimpers in eight U.S. states along the Gulf and Atlantic. A fluent Spanish-speaker, he also got Mexican shrimpers involved.

Together, the Mexican industry bought the property here, the U.S. industry bought the material for this camp at Tepahuajes, and between the fisherman from both countries we spent two months down here building the 12-bed facility for the biologists that run this camp.

The shrimpers also worked with environmental conservation groups to lobby the U.S. government for continued funding in years when lean federal budgets threatened the project.

What we’re talking about is the health of our marine environment in our Gulf of Mexico, and it’s to our benefit in the shrimp industry not to lose another specie out of the Gulf. This was the animal that was most critically endangered. Many of the biologists said there was no way to bring it back, that we’d already lost another specie. So we feel very good about the fact that this one is heading in the right direction.

Heading in the right direction, but not all the way home. The recovery plan calls for a total of 10,000 nesting females to “downlist” the specie from endangered to threatened. If current trends continue, Peña says the project could hit that mark by 2012.

We cannot look at a 2,000-turtle arribatta on May 11 as okay, that’s it, we got it, the turtle’s recovered, let’s pack it up and go home. This is the one yard line–we cannot stop right now. But I think this is the example to follow in conservation, not only for sea turtles, but for any endangered species. If you can have federal governments, state governments, local governments, fisheries industries, universities and NGOs from both countries working together, that is the key for conservation success, that is the word: cooperation.

From Tepehaujes on the Mexican Gulf coast, this is Tom Harvey reporting.

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