Costa Rica: Ancient creature beset by fishing gear, poachers
- Sea turtle is losing the race to poachers, fishing industry
By Kenneth R. Weiss, Los Angeles Times, 5/4/2003
PLAYA GRANDE, Costa Rica -- The leatherback sea turtle, the massive
and mysterious reptile of the Pacific Ocean, has outlived the
dinosaurs by 65 million years. It has survived fiery asteroid strikes
and ice ages that chilled the globe.
But it doesn't look as if this prehistoric innocent will survive us.
Beset by poachers on land and snared in fishing gear at sea, the
Pacific Ocean's population of leatherbacks has plunged 95 percent in
the last 22 years, scientists said. They estimated that fewer than
5,000 nesting females remain in the Pacific.
''I never thought this ancient creature would be vulnerable to
extinction,'' said Larry Crowder of the Duke University Marine Lab.
''Unless something changes, the Pacific leatherback will be extinct
within 10 to 30 years.''
Scientists, once focused on protecting turtle nests on shore, are
shifting their attention to what they see as a greater menace: the
drowning of turtles in fishing nets and on strings of baited hooks
unfurled for 50 miles off the sterns of commercial long-line vessels.
Crowder calculates that long-line fishermen set 4.5 million hooks
every night, stringing the ocean with the marine equivalent of
100,000 miles of barbed-wire fencing.
Alarmed by the precipitous decline of leatherbacks, more than 400
scientists recently called on the United Nations to ban coastal drift
nets and pelagic long-lining for swordfish until the gear can be
modified to reduce turtle deaths.
The United Nations has yet to take up the cause, which is certain to
stir opposition from the fishing industry. Fishermen insist that they
don't target sea turtles, that the air breathers are inadvertently
caught in nets or snagged by hooks and then drown when they cannot
surface to breathe.
Scientists and conservationists are pushing hard to reduce wasteful
practices in commercial fishing fleets, which besides drowning
turtles, inadvertently catch and kill seabirds, dolphins, sharks,
marlin, and many other types of fish that are discarded.
They also see the looming demise of the Pacific leatherback as a
warning sign that the world's largest ocean is in trouble.
Leatherbacks range so widely and are so dispersed in the Pacific that
scientists never previously considered their population capable of
Now they realize that the vast Pacific has limits and that its marine
life has limited resilience and is proving no match for burgeoning
international fishing fleets.
''The Pacific is the Wild West: It's way overfished by these huge
fleets, especially from Asia, and there are no regulations at all,''
said Frank V. Paladino, chairman of the biology department at
Indiana-Purdue University. ''I keep trying to stress, it's not just
sea turtles. Everything is going in the Pacific. Sharks. Dolphins.
Billfish. The leatherbacks are just first.''
Aside from lobbying for changes in global fishing practices, Paladino
and other turtle researchers follow female turtles, gathering up
their eggs as they are laid and reburying them in safer parts of the
Paladino and James V. Spotila, a zoologist at Drexel University, pay
rangers at Las Baulas National Park to protect the turtles from
poachers by patrolling the beach here on Costa Rica's Pacific
shoreline from dusk to dawn.
Using grants, donations, and tourism dollars, they also run a
leatherback hatchery to boost the remnant turtle population. Only one
in 1,000 hatchlings makes it to adulthood. They figure they can
improve the odds to 1 in 100 by incubating the eggs in the hatchery
and fending off predators such as raccoons, skunks, and dogs.
''We never intended to do all this,'' Spotila said. ''But you study
this magnificent animal and you see it going extinct, if you don't
step in and do something. It's like the kid walking by the dike with
a leak in it. You stick your finger in it. Then you cannot very well
The leatherback, the largest and oldest of the sea turtles, has been
around 100 million years or so -- surviving the asteroid that 65
million years ago struck the Yucatan Peninsula, which scientists
believe contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Leatherbacks,
though contemporaries of the dinosaurs, are reptiles and feed
predominantly on another ancient creature: jellyfish.
The turtle gets its name from a leathery shell that has the texture
of smooth, hard rubber. Its shell also has hydrodynamic dorsal
ridges, which, combined with front flippers that can span 10 to 15
feet, enable these reptiles to soar like giant birds through the
Paladino and Spotila have been studying nesting leatherbacks in Costa
Rica since the 1980s. In 1988, they tallied 1,367 turtles nesting on
Playa Grande, one of the four largest nesting colonies in the world.
By 1995, the number had dropped to 506. This year, it was only 59,
and they predict the colony could vanish altogether within a decade
or so. Initially, scientists figured the biggest threats came from
poachers who slaughtered turtles for their meat or stole the eggs to
be sold for reputed aphrodisiac qualities. Scientists supported the
ban on harvesting of turtles and their eggs, and then pursued the
trickier task of enforcing the law in poor countries.
Then turtle researchers started charting the remarkable range of
leatherbacks with satellite tracking tags. They soon discovered that
the leatherbacks in Mexico and Costa Rica swam south around the
Galapagos Islands and into the drift nets positioned by fishermen
like enormous fences off the coast of Peru and Chile.
''The satellite tags gave us an inkling that the problem wasn't just
on the beaches, but on the high seas,'' said Scott Eckert, a San
Diego-based sea turtle researcher. He calculates that these gill
nets, designed to catch swordfish, killed between 2,000 and 3,000
leatherbacks every year from 1982 to the mid-1990s.
The United Nations has since banned gill nets more than 1 mile long
in international waters, but smaller ones continue to snag turtles.
In the global hunt for swordfish, mahimahi, and shark fins (for shark
fin soup), most of the nets have now been replaced by long-line
More boats from China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Spain join the
Pacific long-line fleet every year, each unfurling lines of baited
hooks of at least 50 miles.
Leatherbacks bite only occasionally at the hooks baited with squid.
Mostly they get tangled in the lines or snag flippers on hooks and
To protect leatherbacks around Hawaii, the Turtle Island Restoration
Network of Forest Knolls, Calif., sued in federal court and shut down
the US swordfish long-line industry around the islands. About 30 of
the boats moved to Southern California to escape the ban, but
conservationists filed another lawsuit to close those down, too. The
case is pending.
Scott Barrows, general manager of the Hawaii Longline Association,
complains that the ban, instead of protecting turtles, simply created
an opening for less cautious fishermen from Asia. ''They took us out
and allowed the foreign fleet to come, catch the lucrative swordfish,
and catch and kill more turtles.''
This story ran on page A20 of the Boston Globe on 5/4/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.