Did you know it’s legal to poach sea turtle nests?
(…in response to the viral email “World Wide Shame in Costa Rica”)
At certain times of the year along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast it is 100% legal to dig up threatened sea turtle nests and sell/consume the eggs therein. Surprised? You’re not alone.
Olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea), or tortuga lora in Spanish, generally nest during Costa Rica’s Pacific coast rainy season (May-November). On a few beaches, Ostional being the most famous, the species demonstrates synchronized mass nestings or “arribadas” where thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of loras arrive on the same beach on the same day. The phenomenon occurs every month during the wet season to varying degrees, always around the last quarter moon.
Back in the 70’s and 80’s biologists from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) concluded that the succeeding waves of nesting females coming ashore during these arribadas actually crushed, destroyed, and/or contaminated 70-90% of the previously laid eggs. Researchers, along with the Environmental Ministry, concluded that there would be no harm to the species’ relative abundance along Costa Rican shores if, instead of being trampled into one big scrambled mess, Ostional community members were permitted to dig up 1% of the nests and consume/sell the eggs.
Legally speaking, only members of the Ostional Integrated Development Association (ADIO) are permitted to harvest the eggs. In addition, the harvest is limited to the first 36 hours of the arribada. The eggs must be packaged in plastic bags marked with the ADIO logo where they are then sold nationally to markets, restaurants and other business in Costa Rica.
Recently released pictures have many sea turtle conservationists in an uproar. With no transparency in the turtle egg business, the legal loop hole opens the flood gates for almost anyone to claim their eggs are from Ostional, thus leading to the rampant poaching of all types of sea turtle eggs on both coasts.
The coin does have a flip-side. The egg take provides a fledgling coastal community with a source of income and food. Generation after generation has used simple turtle eggs to make pancakes to feed their families. The exception to the law was put in place as a way to sustainably manage the area’s nesting turtle population; however, with no way to enforce that only Ostional eggs are commercialized, Costa Rica has opened to door to a kind of sea turtle egg consumption pandemonium.
Although UCR researchers concluded that “stealing” eggs would not harm the local population of olive ridleys, no peer reviewed scientific paper supporting these conclusions has ever been excepted for publication–something of a faux pas among members of the academic world.
The olive ridley sea turtle is not an endangered species; however, according to the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species the animal’s status is vulnerable and its population trend is decreasing.