Conservation Programs

The Central American region once supported populations of sea turtles that numbered in the thousands. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century mariner records document "flotillas" of turtles so dense and so vast that net fishing was impossible, even the movement of ships was curtailed. Their teeming numbers were a dominant force in the ecology of coral reefs and sea grass meadows and in the economies of coastal communities. Because sea turtles have been exploited for centuries by coastal communities as a source of meat, eggs, as a base material for the elaboration of cosmetics, jewelry and art crafts, and during the last decades as a major ecotourism attraction, they are currently considered a natural resource of great importance.

Unfortunately, sea turtle populations are currently declining nearly everywhere. Some of the largest breeding populations the world has ever known have vanished (Spotila et al. 1996). Many of those that remain are precariously dependent on coastal habitats which are developing and industrializing at a rapid pace; many rely on remote breeding areas where poaching (for meat and eggs) is widespread, and alternatives to these unsustainable practices are few.

Stemming population declines is a complicated matter. Traditional hunting is deeply rooted, important remnant habitats are remote and difficult to protect. Deforestation, sedimentation, debris and domestic waste may alter nesting habitats, accurate conservation information is largely unavailable, and Wildlife Laws are rarely respected and implemented. Many populations have already reached critical minimum sizes whereby recovery may be biologically improbable. Species recovery is hindered by slow intrinsic growth rates and late maturity. Moreover, causal factors are not always entirely indigenous.

Because sea turtles are among the most migratory of all marine fauna, what appears as a decline in a local population may be a direct consequence of human activities hundreds or thousands of kilometers away. Coordinated conservation action among range states (at both the community and national levels) is crucial. Intensive work must continue to protect key nesting beaches, to protect sea turtles at sea, and to develop international cooperation arrangements to monitor and protect sea turtle species.