In a landmark victory for sea turtle conservation, Costa Rica’s Constitutional Court in February revoked a 1983 law that allowed the legal killing of up to 1,800 green sea turtles each year in that country. The decision was in response to a lawsuit brought by the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC), several Costa Rican citizens and business owners, and a coalition of Costa Rican conservation organizations. CCC joined the case in 1998 at the urging of the Socio-Environmental Commission of Pococí-Guácimo, a grassroots environmental group in Tortuguero that had tried unsuccessfully to stop the legal hunt in 1997.
CCC and 12 co-plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in May of 1998. The Center for Environmental and Natural Resource Law prepared the case for CCC and the other co-plaintiffs. The case attacked the annual turtle harvest on the grounds that it (1) violates the fundamental right of Costa Ricans to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment as guaranteed in Article 50 of the Constitution; (2) violates several international agreements that are in force and take precedence over national laws (e.g. the Convention on Flora, Fauna and Natural Scenic Beauty of the American Nations of 1976, the Convention for the Conservation of Biodiversity and the Protection of Priority Central American Wildlands, and the Convention on Biological Diversity); and, (3) was never adequately enforced by the Costa Rican fishery institute INCOPESCA and provided cover for a much larger illegal harvest of sea turtles. CCC provided convincing scientific evidence on the illegal take, and argued against the harvesting of reproductively-active adult turtles that migrate to Costa Rican waters during nesting season.
As a result of this recent victory, it is no longer legal to kill any sea turtles in Costa Rica. Now the issue becomes how to prevent illegal turtle hunting.
Protecting the nesting beach at Tortuguero
In spite of the previously legal turtle hunt, CCC, the government of Costa Rica, and the villagers of Tortuguero have made great strides in protecting Tortuguero’s nesting population of turtles, largely through measures to protect their nesting habitat in Tortuguero National Park, and to protect both the nests and the animals themselves. Villagers now say that sea turtles are more valuable to them alive than cooked up in the stewpot. Tourists pay considerable fees to local guides in order to watch sea turtles nest on Tortuguero Beach. Some 50,000 tourists visit Tortuguero annually to see nesting turtles and visit the tropical rainforests of Tortuguero National Park.
In 1996 and 1997, controls during turtle nesting season were weak to non-existent on the beach. In 1997, CCC documented the illegal taking of at least 1,700 green turtles in the park, and it is estimated that thousands more were captured and butchered illegally. During the 1998 nesting season, in response to intensive lobbying by CCC and other Tortuguero activists, the government of Costa Rica prioritized protection for Tortuguero. Eduardo Chamorro, Tortuguero Conservation Area administrator and long-time Tortuguero resident, headed up a highly successful protection program, reducing poaching more than 80% over 1997 levels, even though more turtles were returning to the beach to nest.
A new commission made up of public and private stakeholders, including CCC, now exists to address environmental issues in Tortuguero. A priority for the commission is the development and implementation of a sea turtle protection plan for the 1999 nesting season.CCC will again play a major role in assisting the national park’s effort to prevent illegal turtle hunting.
Turtle ban spawns fishermen-conservationist partnership
Poaching of early arriving green turtles has already been occurring in Tortuguero National Park this season, and it is anticipated that some turtle hunters will continue to take turtles despite the ban. A few individuals are suspected of using turtle fishing as a “legitimate” cover for illicit drug-running activities along the Caribbean coast. A market for turtle meat and eggs still exists around Limón, a port city just south of Tortuguero, because the use of turtle products has had a long tradition in the area. However, environmental education efforts there over the past few years have had an effect. An awareness has been created among local children about the need to conserve sea turtles, to the extent that many are now refusing to eat turtle meat at home.
The fishermen of Limón are not numerous, nor have they been organized to have their interests represented. Surprisingly, in response to the successful lawsuit, they have now formed the Limón Fishing Association, and have approached the Central American Network of Sea Turtle Specialists, of which CCC is a member, to seek alternative sources of income and to ensure the continued recovery of the green turtle population. The fishermen conceded that turtle hunting was out of control, and that the influx of illegal meat into the market, in two to three times the quantity of “legal” meat, had driven down the price.
CCC and other sea turtle specialists working in the region have held several meetings with the Limón Fishing Association, the fishery institute INCOPESCA, other NGOs, the environmental ministry MINAE, and public security and health officials, to seek appropriate solutions for the fishermen and to meet the enforcement challenge of the new ban. Among the proposed solutions are: compensation of the affected fishermen in exchange for their collaboration in capturing poachers; training and financing for other jobs; and, involvement in turtle tourism activities at a nesting beach close to Limón. More environmental education programs are also being planned for Limón.