San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Turtle Hatchery Helps Fishing Town Turn Conservationist

ASTILLERO – “Should we kill the turtle?” shouted the master of ceremonies, Magdiel Villagra, gesturing to the man dancing around on the beach wearing a turtle suit.

“Nooooo!” the children of Playa Astillero shouted back in union.

“Should we eat her eggs?” Villagra pressed.

“Nooo,” most of the children answered, with what sounded like a few dissident votes of “Si” mixed into the chorus.

“Then let’s throw the turtle back into the ocean!” Villagra ordered, prompting dozens of screaming children to chase, push and pull the hapless turtle-suited man to the edge of the surf.

Afterwards, as the tide rose and the sun set, the children obligingly stood in a queue behind a rope line facing the ocean and helped volunteers from Flora and Fauna International release the real thing: more than 6,500 tiny Olive Ridley sea turtles born last week in Astillero’s community hatchery.

With careful hands and big smiles, the kids took the newly hatched turtles out of buckets and placed them on the water’s edge, screaming with delight as the waves came and washed their little friends into the sea.

The Astillero turtle hatchery, which is organized in a partnership between the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA), the Danish Embassy, US AID, the UN and several non-governmental conservation groups, is helping to change the mindset in this small Pacific coast fishing village.

Pedro José Umaña, who oversees the town’s hatchery and remembers when there were only four houses on Playa Astillero in the 1970s, said the turtle project has helped the community learn the importance of conservation. Umaña said when he used to help MARENA protect turtle nesting sites in the 1980’s, authorities paid him in turtle eggs, which people here have eaten for generations.

Even now, despite a law that prohibits the sale and consumption of turtle eggs, they can still be found on menus in many popular eateries in and around Managua – creating a demand that continues to fuel the pillaging of nesting sites.

But in Astillero, people are taking a different view of these prehistoric animals from the sea. Under the technical guidance of Flora and Fauna, and the local leadership of the community’s Sandinista Council of Citizen Power (CPC), the people of Astillero have built 250 turtle nests inside their beachfront hatchery, which is covered in blacknetting to provide shade and protection from animals and poachers.

In total, the nests contain some 22,800 turtle eggs, which were carefully collected by community members and other volunteers.

“Each year is a tenacious struggle to work shoulder to shoulder with the community to protect this species,” said MARENA representative Freddy Rivera.

CPC coordinator Doribel Gutiérrez told The Nica Times that on nights of turtle nestings – an event known as arribadas, when thousands of turtles lumber out of the sea to lay their eggs in the sand before returning to the water – community volunteers work from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. to collect the eggs and replant them in the hatchery.

“We are very proud of these efforts – this has never been done before this,” Gutiérrez said. “Our sands are quality sands.”

Egg Collection

Egg-collection is done by placing a plastic bag in the hole dug by the mother turtle, and then catching the eggs as they’re laid.

The open-mouthed bag is then replanted at the same depth in the protected sands of the hatchery.

The collection process saves untold thousands of eggs from being trampled by other turtles or eaten by predators – of both two and four-legged varieties – according to Perla Torres, Flora and Fauna International’s technical assistance for the Astillero sea turtle project.

Plus, Torres said, by placing the eggs in the protective hatchery, they’re also protected from the sun and other natural threats, such as flooded rivers that can wash out a nesting site.

Indeed, so perilous is the existence of a turtle egg in nature that only 2 percent hatch a turtle that makes it to the ocean, and only 1 of 1,000 survives to adulthood, according to Torres.

Needless to say, the Olive Ridley’s conservation status is listed as “vulnerable.”

In the hatchery, however, the odds of surviving long enough to make it to the sea increase to around 60 – 80 percent, Torres said.

Once the sea turtles make to open water, however, a whole new set of threats await. But those that survive beyond infancy begin a long adventure that takes them thousands of miles south, into cooler ocean waters off the coast of Chile, Torres said.

Twenty to thirty years later, the sea turtles miraculously return to the beach on which they were born lay their own eggs.

Nesting Sites

Torres says the Olive Ridley sea turtle has only seven nesting sites in all of Mesoamerica – two in Nicaragua, two in Costa Rica, two in Mexico and one in Guatemala (Nicaragua is also a breeding ground for the larger Leatherback, Green and Black sea turtles).

Curiously enough, Astillero is not one of the Olive Ridley’s nesting sites. Although it used to be.

Umaña, the hatchery manager, says thirty years ago Astillero was a nesting grounds for the species. But when the people settled in the area, the lights from their houses and oil from their fishing boats forced the sea turtles to seek more secluded beaches to the north.

Today, the Olive Ridley’s natural breeding grounds are at Playa La Flor and Playa Chacocente.

The residents of Astillero, however, are trying to make peace with the sea turtles and bring them back. The eggs in the hatchery here were collected on the beach at Chacocente, some 20 kilometers north.

Flora and Fauna’s Torres says, as far as she knows, the Astillero hatchery is the first egg-relocation project of its kind. That means that turtles born here will have different imprinting than their mothers, who were born in Chacocente and returned there twenty years later to lay their eggs.

Torres admits it remains to be seen whether the turtles born here in 2010 will return to Astillero or Chacocente, or another point unknown twenty years from now. “This is a long-term project,” she said. What does appear certain, is that when and if the turtles do return, they will be welcomed back by a community that’s had a change of heart.

The children of Astillero today will be adults when the turtles return. And if the present is any indicator of future behavior, most of these young residents will probably be less likely to kill their childhood friends for meat, or eat their eggs for food.

“I love the turtles,” said nine-year-old Josep Villagra, as he delicately examines one of the newborn hatchings in his gloved hand. “They’re pretty.”

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