Why Baja’s Baby Sea Turtles Are at Risk Now More Than Ever

Threats to the species are accelerating at an alarming rate.

Sea turtles
Loggerhead sea turtles in Baja are reaching a critical point in their need for protection. (Photo: Ash Lindsey/Getty Images)
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Any day now, hundreds of endangered loggerhead sea turtles may be fighting for their lives in the waters off the Gulf of Ulloa, Baja California, Mexico. That’s because each summer, fleets of small-scale fishermen flock there for halibut season.

On arrival, they’ll drop huge gillnets into the waters, anchoring them to the ocean floor. These nets—some which can almost be a mile long—are set to catch giant halibut, but also catch endangered sea turtles, seals, and other non-target fish as well.

By far their most critically damaging bycatch are juvenile loggerhead sea turtles, which swim from Japan across the Pacific to this special spot and feast on protein-rich red crabs. They park there for nine months before turning around and swimming back to Japan—now as full-grown adults.

According to Chris Pincetich of the California-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project, loggerheads will repeat this cycle over time as adults, returning to Baja’s rich seafloor to feed on crab. But not if Mexico’s government doesn’t put a stop to the unlimited gillnet fishing in these critical waters.

As Pincetich told TakePart today, if this summer is anything like last year’s, loggerheads will be in a lot of trouble. Because in July 2012, a shocking 483 loggerheads washed up dead on a 40-kilometer stretch of beach along the gulf. 

Pincetich and other scientists are alarmed because that’s a 600 percent increase over sea turtle deaths last year.

That has SeaTurtles.org and other conservation groups alike now struggling for answers and action. He says that last year, “Something happened with the halibut fishery where a bunch of new boats came in.” Observers were not on-hand last summer to confirm whether or not they were local Mexican boats or other, illegal international fishing vessels. Either way, two months later, close to 500 loggerheads turned up dead on the beach. 

“It was a wakeup call for the conservation community,” says Pincetich, “which thought, up until then, that it was making enough progress for loggerhead protection through local fishermen. They thought they were getting through to local communities and had seen local populations begin to climb.”

But scientists estimate that at least 2,5000 loggerheads died in just this small area of Baja, Mexico as a result of commercial fishing last year, says Pincetich, and that most were juveniles. The culprit seems to be a combination of poor management of the fishery and disregard for sea turtle protection laws in place. So SeaTurtles.org and others are on a mission to convince Mexican fisheries that they must reform their operations to comply with international sea turtle protection laws.

How will they do it? Pincetich says the Mexican government is already at least starting to get on board, by promising to place observers on boats to document where fishing vessels are coming from and whether or not they have the correct permits to use the deadly gillnets. Discussions from the conservation community also include establishing a new marine-protected area where juvenile loggerheads are known to be in highest densities, yet so far government officials have not taken this seriously.

And as evidenced by the recent death of  26-year-old Costa Rican sea turtle conservation worker Jairo Mora Sandoval, speaking up for sea turtles and challenging local fisheries, which sometimes operate illegally, can lead to danger.

Pincetich says tensions are rising between sea turtle conservationists and fishermen on the Baja Peninsula. Recently, for instance, they have been targeting a man who walks the beaches counting all the bycatch that washes up dying or dead. Pincetich says that last summer, thugs spraypainted messages telling sea turtle conservation workers to leave town.

“This issue of conservation in Mexico is that we’re working hard to make sure people know the truth and make sure the government knows [and acknowledges] there’s a problem,” says Pincetich. “The next step is to protect sea turtles and begin to implement meaningful changes in fisheries.” 

Halibut season in the Gulf of Ulloa is open now. Sign the petition below to tell a Mexican official that you want more protection for the loggerhead sea turtles.

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