CCC Celebrates 40 Years of Sea Turtle Conservation

Winter 1999 Issue Articles:

* Celebrating 40 Years of Sea Turtle Conservation

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CCC Celebrates 40 Years of Sea Turtle Conservation

By David Godfrey, CCC Executive Director

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. This milestone presents an opportunity to take stock of the organization’s many achievements and to pass on some of the important lessons learned during four decades of sea turtle research and conservation. Beginning in this issue of the Velador, and continuing through the remaining three issues of 1999, CCC will reflect on its history; examine the changes that have taken place in sea turtle research and conservation; reveal important lessons learned; and prepare for the challenges that lie ahead. Keeping with the notion that we must examine our past before we can know our future, this first article in CCC’s four-part anniversary series will take a look back at CCC’s roots.

In the 1950s when Dr. Archie Carr, then a young graduate professor at the University of Florida, made his first trips to the Caribbean in search of answers to his many questions about sea turtles, even the most basic facts about the life history of sea turtles were unknown. No one knew, for instance, that green turtles take up to 50 years to reach sexual maturity or that females likely return to the same beach where they were hatched to deposit their own eggs. And at the time, Dr. Carr was one of the few people in the world trying to find the answers.

As Dr. Carr made his intriguing discoveries, he captured the attention of the world through his now-famous series of books. In fact, The Windward Road and So Excellent a Fishe remain must-reads for aspiring sea turtle biologists and naturalists alike. While explaining the fascinating life history of sea turtles, the books also forewarned of an impending collapse in sea turtle populations unless their nesting habitat could be protected and over-harvesting could be stopped.

Dr. Carr’s talent for turning biology into literature helped capture the attention of Joshua Powers and John Phipps. Disturbed by his prediction that the Caribbean green turtle would soon go extinct, the duo organized the formation of the “Brotherhood of the Green Turtle” to support Dr. Carr’s studies and conservation efforts. In 1959, the Brotherhood was formally incorporated as the nonprofit Caribbean Conservation Corporation—the first organization in the world dedicated solely to the preservation of sea turtles.

CCC ‘s Early Efforts

Archie Carr tagging a Tortuguero turtle with Leo Martinez in the 1960s.

CCC’s initial goal was “to save the green turtle from destruction, to give it a chance to renew its numbers, and to redistribute it to all those beaches where it was once common.” To accomplish this bold task, Archie and the CCC began monitoring nesting activity each summer at Tortuguero, Costa Rica, site of the largest remaining nesting colony in the Western Hemisphere. Through these studies, the first of their kind in the world, CCC intended to track over time the changes in the numbers of turtles coming back to nest. With the use of a simple but effective tagging program, CCC also hoped to discover important information about, among other things, where the turtles migrate after leaving Tortuguero. Both of these programs continue to this day, and have produced valuable information about sea turtle biology, behavior, migration and other factors critical to effective conservation efforts.

This 1960 photo shows Navy pilots and CCC workers carrying out Operation Green Turtle, whereby live green turtle hatchlings from Tortuguero were released throughout the Caribbean.

Toward the goal of restocking other nesting sites that had been wiped out by over-hunting, CCC launched “Operation Green Turtle,” a project through which hatchling sea turtles were transported to and released on beaches throughout the Caribbean. In the operation’s first year, some 15,500 hatchlings were sent to twelve different locations in Central America, the West Indies and Florida. The U.S. Navy supplied planes and pilots to transport the precious cargo. It was hoped that, as introductions were repeated and extended, new breeding colonies would be established at the places where the little turtles were released.In the 1960s, CCC supported one of the first-ever “head-starting” programs, whereby hatchlings from Tortuguero were taken to a new facility in the Cayman Islands where they were raised in a protected nursery until about one year of age. The large, robust yearlings were then returned to the beach at Tortuguero to be released back into the wild. The goal was to increase the number of hatchlings surviving to reproductive age by protecting them through the normally dangerous first year of life. Unfortunately, CCC and others had not yet learned enough about the life stages of sea turtles to know that a yearling placed back on its natal beach would have little chance of surviving.

Both Operation Green Turtle and the head-starting program were bold, optimistic and untested. And in the end, they proved mostly unfruitful.

After many hard lessons, and after scientific understanding about sea turtle biology increased, Dr. Carr and the CCC decided that time and energy were more appropriately spent protecting the nesting beach at Tortuguero and eliminating the problem of over-harvesting. Protection of habitat, education and combating over-harvesting would eventually become CCC’s primary conservation tactics.

Archie Carr uses a rudimentary scale to weigh a green turtle at Tortuguero.

One of CCC’s first goals was to protect Tortuguero beach from poaching and development. Much of this goal was accomplished in 1970, when the Costa Rican government, working with CCC, established Tortuguero National Park. The park is a 19,000 hectare tract of beach, coastal rainforest and streams. The 22-mile stretch of black-sand beach included in the park is by far the most productive green turtle nesting site in the Western Hemisphere. With the park established, development along the coast would never stretch much beyond the existing village, and the presence of CCC researchers and park guards would discourage poaching.CCC realized, however, that the cultural demand for sea turtle meat and eggs would be harder to overcome. Trying not to interfere with local customs, CCC instead began working with villagers to promote ecotourism as a more sustainable use of the sea turtles that come to Tortuguero each year.

Gradually, local shops and hotels have sprouted offering villagers a steady source of income. Each year, tens of thousands of tourists come to Tortuguero to see the nesting sea turtles and the other natural treasures of the national park. After receiving certification through a CCC training program, villagers are issued government permits authorizing them to guide tourists on nightly turtle watching excursions. Villagers take great pride in receiving a guide permit, and those that do are staunch defenders of Tortuguero’s turtles.

Other early initiatives focused on the importance of educating Costa Ricans and visitors alike about the various threats to sea turtle survival. With support from the Tinker Foundation, CCC built an educational kiosk in the center of Tortuguero village that told the story of sea turtles. The kiosk still stands today, and CCC has augmented its ability to educate by constructing the H. Clay Frick Natural History Museum and Visitor Center, which now reaches most visitors to Tortuguero.

Over the years, CCC’s strategies to protect sea turtles, combined with the dedication of the Costa Rican people, have worked. Shortly before his death, Dr. Carr wrote in an epilogue to So Excellent a Fishe, “Without any doubt whatever, the CCC program has saved the Tortuguero green turtle colony—by far the most important population in the Caribbean—from the total destruction that it faced in the 1950s. It is chilling to think what shape the green turtles would be in today if there had been no Caribbean Conservation Corporation.

Lessons Learned

During the past 40 years, while helping discover much of what is known about sea turtle biology, migration and life history, CCC has learned perhaps the most promising lesson of all—that diminished sea turtle populations can be recovered with the right mix of habitat protection and reduction of human-caused mortality. The recovery of sea turtles cannot be accomplished through a quick-fix. And often the most appealing, hands-on approaches, such as hatcheries and head-starting, are at best misguided and at worst a complication to conservation efforts. The fact is sea turtles have survived for millions of years by depositing their nests unattended on thin ribbons of sand around the world and living a pelagic existence as so excellent a fish. Over a hundred million years of evolution are on their side. All we as humans need to do to assure sea turtle survival is to protect the natural ingredients of their lives—such as healthy beaches and unpolluted waters—and control over-harvesting. Around the world, sea turtles face many threats, and their fate is far from clear. But as a conservation effort that began on a black-sand beach in Costa Rica four decades ago, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation has learned how to save the sea turtle, and that is exactly what it is doing.