Saturday, December 24, 2011

Black Sea Turtles Return To Baja California, But So Do Poachers From Dr. Wallace J. Nichols

Every expedition begins well before the official start and ends far after its conclusion. This is especially the case with The Black Turtle Project, an unfolding and evolving effort to join conservation photography, communication and biology. I can assure you that this project began long ago and will live on into the future. The past two weeks in Baja are just the start of a collaborative effort that will transpire over the coming year and document the nascent and emerging success story of the black sea turtle's return to the Pacific coast of the Americas.

For myself, the expedition links back to graduate school and a decision to -- against the odds, against my advisors' wishes and with no funding to speak of -- focus several decades of my life on sea turtle research and conservation. For conservation photographer and Associate Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, Neil Ever Osborne, this project also extends back into his past and includes his decision to pick up a camera and set aside a career as a biologist. For our colleagues in Mexico, from Michoacan to Baja California, this project represents decades of committed conservation efforts, dedication in the face of despair, thousands of all-nighters and -- most-recently -- some signs of hope. The story of the black turtle is about people: poachers, children, scientists, artists, fishers, politicians, teachers, conservationists, photographers, narco-traffickers, guides, leaders and followers, musicians. What I've come to realize is that all of the people in this story wear several of those hats, simultaneously or sequentially.

In the late 1990's the location in Baja that we are visiting now was one of our research sites. We caught black turtles here, tagged them, measured and weighed them and then released them back into the bay. We learned that young turtles caught here would return to the same spot, even if released in another part of the bay. But eventually poachers wiped out all of the sea turtles at our site, making our research impossible. So we moved our efforts to a different part of the bay.

Alejandro Osuna was one of those sea turtle hunters. With his father he caught and cooked sea turtles right where we are camped now, in the mangrove-lined Estero Los Cuervos, a branch of Bahia Magdalena. Now Alejandro is our captain and guide, one of the local leaders working to bring back the turtles. When we arrived to our former site to set our research nets we weren't sure what we might find. Had the turtles come back, just like many other locations along the Baja coast or was the area still recovering. The plan was to set out our nets for 24 hours to find out if Estero Los Cuervos could be a viable monitoring site, as it was so many years ago. Our answer came more quickly than expected, but not using the techniques we anticipated. At our site we found that a net was already there. It was an illegal net belonging to poachers who had set it for turtles. Alejandro wasn't pleased.Read more

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