Can sea turtle egg poaching be sustainable?

Sea Turtles on Guatemala's Pacific coast

Several of the world’s sea turtle species frequent Guatemala’s Pacific waters; the olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), eastern Pacific green (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) (Higginson, 1989). Of these species, only the olive ridley (local name “parlama”) and a rapidly declining population of leatherback turtles nest on Guatemala’s Pacific coast (Project Parlama, 2006).
Egg harvesting poses the greatest immediate threat to nesting turtles, local poachers intercept almost 100% of eggs laid, and some 2 million eggs are removed annually and sold (Project Parlama, 2006).
The combination of the traditional popularity of turtle eggs as a luxury food item and the high price that can easily be found for egg sales, makes it very difficult to ban egg collecting (as is generally sought by international conservation law) as egg sales are important to the local coastal economy (Project Parlama, 2006).
Egg sales in Guatemala generate a total retail value of $3,215,530 (Handy, 2006).

The Donation System

In 1979 Guatemala ratified the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which protects all species of sea turtles from international trade or commerce (Higginson, 1989).
However, a quasi-legal situation has evolved within the country, using a voluntary egg donation system where egg collectors are asked to donate 12-20% of each nest to a local hatchery (Handy, 2006), allowing the trade of sea turtle eggs. Eggs are smuggled illegally into Guatemala from other countries, such as Mexico or Nicaragua, where poaching and trading sea turtle eggs is illegal, and once safely in the markets of Guatemala, there is no way of knowing where the eggs came from (Peterson, personal communication 2006). This is hindering conservation efforts within neighbouring countries as there continues to be an incentive for poachers despite the high risks and difficulties involved (personal communication with FUNDACIóN COCIBOLCA, Nicaragua, 2007).

Only towards the end of 2006 were regulations tightened on the trade and consumption of leatherback turtle eggs, due to their severely endangered status. A new national law in the Diario de Centro America numero 28, 5/10/2006, of Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas (CONAP) del gobierno de Guatemala prohibits the collection and exploitation of leatherback eggs between the 15th October 2006 until the 15th April 2007. Perpetrators face fines of up to 2.7 thousand US dollars and 5 to 10 years imprisonment (CONAP, 2007).
Despite the ethical debate as to whether or not it is morally defensible to permit the contuning harvest of endangered sea turtles eggs, the reality of Guatemala's current economic and political situation definitely highlights the virtues of having an egg donation system. Even when egg poaching was illegal, it still continued due to the lack of government funds available to police sea turtle nesting beaches. The geography of Guatemala's Pacific coast also makes this endeveor virtually impossible- some 250km of continuous coastline...where do police patrols begin and where do they end? How do you catch every poacher on 250km of beach?
The donation system ensures an above average hatching success rate....more baby turtles make it to the sea every year thanks to the 20 something sea turtle hatcheries stretching Guatemala's coast than if turtles were left to do it themselves in the wild.

Table 1: Sea turtle egg totals for Project Parlama hatcheries 2006

Hatcheries are also the perfect settings to conduct scientific research on an under studied sea turtle population and carry out environmental education programmes within the coastal communities. The donation system has its flaws, but it is an effective conservation tool that makes good use of the resources that are available. It is a great example of grass roots conservation in action.

To see the full article:
Brittain, et al. 2007. "Project Parlama- Sea turtle conservation on Guatemala's Pacific coast". In: TESTUDO, 6:4, 43-52.

Project Parlama is a grass-roots conservation project working with local coastal communites in Gutemala to try and conserve the nesting population of leatherback and olive ridley sea turtles. Check out the blog site: Project Parlama blog...go support Project Parlama!