Poaching & Threats to Sea Turtles in Costa Rica

Bycatch in Fisheries: Green sea turtles often become unintentional victims of fishing operations, getting entangled in fishing gear such as nets and hooks. This can result in injury or death for the turtles.

Plastic Ingestion: Green sea turtles may mistake plastic debris, such as bags and straws, for food. Ingesting plastic can lead to intestinal blockages, malnutrition, and even death.

Pollution and Diseases: Pollution, including oil spills and chemical runoff, can contaminate the water and harm green sea turtles directly. Additionally, pollution weakens their immune systems, making them more susceptible to diseases.

Coastal Development: Coastal development, such as the construction of resorts, ports, and coastal infrastructure, can lead to habitat destruction and fragmentation. Loss of nesting beaches and feeding grounds can significantly impact green sea turtle populations.

Climate Change: Rising temperatures and sea levels, as well as changes in ocean currents and storm patterns, can affect the distribution and availability of suitable nesting sites and feeding grounds for green sea turtles. Climate change can also influence the sex ratio of hatchlings, potentially leading to imbalanced populations.

Legal and Illegal Harvesting: Green sea turtles have historically been harvested for their meat, fat, and eggs, which depletes populations and disrupts their reproductive success. This is especially important for Turtle Love, because Tortuguero green turtles are still harvested illegally for their meat and eggs in Costa Rica. Furthermore, green turtles nesting in Costa Rica forage off Nicaragua, where a legal harvest kills up to 12,000 green turtles per year.

Sea turtles were an important source of food for many a pre-historical civilization throughout the Planet. In the Americas, coastal pre-Columbian peoples relied on sea turtle meat and eggs as a major source of protein in their diets. Nevertheless, sea turtle populations seemed plentiful when the Conquistador ships started pouring in from Europe to  invade the “New World” in the late 1400s. Much of this history is told by ships’ logs and seamen’s journals, which accounted for the abundance of sea turtles in the Caribbean at that time. Some sailors would report weeks on end without being able to sleep because the sound of the ship’s hull hitting the shells of sea turtles kept them awake.

Likely, most of these unfortunate turtles that were being run over by European ships were green turtles, which is the same species that we see at Turtle Love’s project area nowadays. However, the abundance of green turtles on the Caribbean Sea is estimated to have decreased by over 97% since, which was mostly due to a large spree of consumption of this resource by the following fleets that colonized the Americas. The Cayman Islands, which were called Islas Tortugas (Turtle Islands) by Columbus due to the sheer number of green turtles found there, became a place where European ships would replenish their food stocks with turtles that were easy to capture, would stay alive for long with no food in the ship’s stores, and could be butchered and consumed fresh by a ships crew whenever needed. Hunting sea turtles allowed European ships an autonomy of another 1 to 2 years at sea and played a key role in the European colonization of the Americas.

By the 1800s, the green turtle population in the Cayman Islands had been driven to extinction. Other species that were also targeted by the nutrient-starved sailors crossing the Atlantic, such as the West-Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus), did not resist that long. And Caymanian turtle captains, which were now the most skillful in hunting sea turtles had to search for the resource elsewhere. This search led them to arrive at the Miskito Banks, off the Coast of Nicaragua, which seemed to be even more filled with green turtles than the Cayman Islands ever were. At this place, where the continental shelf is long and the flats of turtle grass are as extensive as terrestrial prairies, herbivorous green turtles that eat mostly seagrass (Thalassia testudinum), found a perfect grazing paradise. The hunt of green turtles in this area is still ongoing, and at least 6,000 green turtles are slaughtered in this area per year. Our Scientific Director is currently doing research in this area.

The early captains followed the green turtle from their foraging areas at the Miskito Banks to the place where they reproduced. This legendary place was known back in the day as the “Turtle Bogue”, which indicated a place where a river mouth would reach the sea. According to local tales, this was the place where green turtles from all over the Caribbean would meet to reproduce and lay eggs. Nowadays, we know this place as Tortuguero, on the northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

Tortuguero turned out to be the most important nesting beach for green turtles in the Atlantic Ocean, the second most important in the world, where over 100,000 green turtle nests are laid in a nesting season. Caribbean green turtles exported to Europe from Tortuguero among other places were a delicacy appreciated in the aristocratic dinner parties, including that of Winston Churchill, the famous English prime minister that led the country through the horrors of World War II, who was fond of turtle soup. The slaughtering of green turtles in Costa Rica was also legal until the early 2000s, and this population, too, was driven to the brink of extinction.

By the early 1950’s, a professor from the University of Florida, Dr. Archie Carr, started going to Tortuguero and reporting on the plight of the green turtle in the Caribbean. According to Dr. Carr, if nothing was done to abate the levels of slaughtering, the Caribbean green turtle would be extinct soon. As a direct result of his observations and outreach, Tortuguero National Park was created to protect approximately 30 km of green turtle nesting beach. After this, the green turtle population recovered somewhat and Tortuguero become a model community where turtle watching tourism almost completely replaced the predatorial exploitation of sea turtles. With tourism, turtles are worth more alive.

Dr. Carr is nowadays considered the “father of sea turtle biology and conservation” and his legacy lives on. The Sea Turtle Conservancy (former Caribbean Conservation Corporation), which was the organization created by Dr. Carr in the 1950s to raise awareness about sea turtle conservation, is nowadays the oldest sea turtle organization in the world and still works to monitor the sea turtle nesting activity in the Tortuguero beach.

Furthermore, the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research (ACCSTR) in the University of Florida was founded in 1986 in recognition of Dr. Carr’s achievements. The ACCSTR’s mission is to “conduct research in all aspects of the biology of sea turtles, to educate students, and to further marine conservation through the communication of these research results to the scientific community, management agencies, and conservation organizations throughout the world.” The Center is led by one of Dr. Carr former graduate students, Dr. Karen Bjorndal. Our Scientific Director, Renato Bruno, is currently a graduate student of Dr. Bjorndal’s and academic offspring of the most revered sea turtle biologists in the world.

Although Tortuguero is a successful conservation story, high levels of illegal harvest (or poaching) still threaten sea turtles and their eggs in areas adjacent to the National Park. Turtle Love extends protection and monitoring to another 5 km of important nesting beach for three endangered sea turtle species. Illegal harvest of nests and adult green and hawksbill turtles (for meat and shell products, respectively) is the primary threat Turtle Love seeks to address. Turtle Love works with residents of local communities to raise awareness and foster development based on sustainable use of sea turtles through ecotourism. By running a monitoring project and maintaining a presence on the beach, we discourage poaching in the short term, and by involving local community members in the conservation effort, we foster long-term change by providing a sustainable income source that does not rely on harvesting eggs and adult sea turtles. Our monitoring activities also provide the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) with data necessary to guide management of this nesting beach and help ensure the continued survival of these incredible animals.