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.

For links to more opinions on the Ostional egg take, click here.  And to watch a spectacular video on nesting olive ridleys on this beach, click here

18 Responses to “Did you know it’s legal to poach sea turtle nests?”
  1. Maria Elbilia says:

    Esto es ridiculo, el gobierno de costa rica no deberia permitir la colecta de huevos de tortugas. Pronto las tortugas seran envia de extincion. Se deberian colectar firmas o emails para hacer una queja publica y asi poder protejer los huevos de tortugas al igual que estas.

    • Andy Bystrom says:

      Hola Maria,
      Si usted quiere obtener más información sobre este tema y enterarse en un posible campaña en contra del saqueo de huevos en Ostional, le sugiero ponerse en contacto con:

      Luis Diego Marín Schumacher
      Director–Preserve Planet
      Tel.: (506) 8821-7996

      Gracias por su comentario.



  2. Barbara says:

    I am surprised there is not more information on this on the internet. where does the international scientific community stand on this? Do you have any additional links?
    how is this enforced?

    • Andy Bystrom says:

      Hi Barbara,
      Here’s a link to a bit more information:

      I can’t speak for the scientific community outside of Costa Rica, but here in country there is a slight rift between those in favor of the egg take and those opposed to it. It’s important to note that the program is based on years of solid science. What would improve the situation is better control of the chain of custody between the harvesters up through the consumers. As it is right now, there is NO governmental control and it’s doubtful there will ever be any.

      I have heard of a number of environmental organizations interested in campaigning against the egg take, but they have yet to put together anything serious.

      Personally, I don’t think exceptions to laws should be made if the law itself cannot be enforced.

      Thanks for your comments!!

  3. Hola

    les adjunto un link para que vea un documental de 5 minutos sobre la situación de la zona y que puedan tener más elementos para hacer su propia conclusión

    ojala pueda difundir esta información


  4. Pumpy says:

    I really am amazed, I posted an article on my blog, and had a reply from Dr. Simon C. Nemtzov. Who informed me that this was all done to help the turtle, and legal. Now I am in a quandry.

    • Andy Bystrom says:

      In theory it is done to help the turtles. So the question is: If mismanagement of a legal egg take leads to rampant nest poaching on every other beach in Costa Rica, is the legal egg take in Ostional helping or hurting the species? Them there’s the social aspect to consider. Ostional community members have based their entire livelihoods around legal nest poaching. Is it fair to now tell them that their main (in some cases only) source of income should be cut off? The situation is complicated for sure.

      Thanks for the comment; I’ll check out your post!!


  5. jenny andersen says:

    estoy de acuerdo con que se regulen estas caserias de huevo de tortugas porque ellas se estan extinguiendo y este pobre animal que no hace dano a nadie se va a estinguir. si la tortuga no exixtiera se percataban de otro infeliz animal hay que hacer algo en panama ya esta regulado esa cosecha de huevos de estas indefenzas animales. despues de el derrame de pertrolio en el golfo muchas de estas especies han desaparecdido patra siempre

    • Andy Bystrom says:

      Gracias por sus aportes Jenny. El asunto es aun mas complicado ahora porque la tortuga lora (olive ridley) ya no esta en la lista roja de la UICN de la especies en peligro critico de extincion (http://www.iucnredlist.org/). La quitaran hace unos anos por sus mejores poblacions. Ahore muchos dicen que el saqueo de sus huevos no esta afectando la poblacion. Esto no es cierto pero lo usan como manera de justificar el consumo de huevos. Lo que necesitamos es mas personas como usted quienes de verdad son preocupados por la biodiversidad del planeta.


  6. Brian Schill says:

    I just got the “viral” email today with many photos of people digging up, bagging and carrying away large numbers of turtle eggs. Good to hear it may not be nearly as bad as it appeared. But I am skeptical about the lack of any study of the matter appearing in a peer-reviewed scientific journal- though I admit it does not prove the UCR scientists wrong. But when I look at those huge numbers of eggs being taken, I can’t help thinking that they amount to much more than 1% of the total eggs laid in the arribada. There need to be fairly accurate counts of laying females and eggs, and hatchlings later on. Also- what of the effect of people taking the early eggs and leaving the later eggs to hatch? Aren’t they selecting for the later turtles to pass on their DNA?
    Thanks for moderating this issue.
    Brian Schill,
    Spring Branch TX

    • Andy Bystrom says:

      You bring up some excellent points. On paper, the egg take is strictly regulated. In reality it’s more like a free-for-all out there—-everyone scrambling to “get there share of the prize”. We conservationists (I’ve tried to be as objective as possible in the posting) have always been concerned with the lack of scientific evidence, and your comment about the DNA really raises a good question. I guess my biggest problem with the egg take is the loop hole it opens up for eggs to be poached on every other Costa Rican beach and be commercialized as being from “Ostional”. The egg take may or may not have an impact on the Ostional population, but rampant poaching sure has an impact on all other beaches. El Salvador recently outlawed all sea turtle egg consumption. This needs to happen here in CR. The Ostional community also needs to shift its thinking to take advantage of ecotourism opportunities associated with sea turtle protection. This would involve a long term educational program and ecotourism investment. Right now, if I would go there and mention outlawing the egg take, I’d get run out of town rather forcibly!

  7. Eduardo Rubiera says:

    Merriam-Webster defines poaching as
    1: to encroach upon especially for the purpose of taking something
    : to trespass for the purpose of stealing game; also : to take game or fish illegally

    If it’s “legal” at Ostional, then it is not “poaching”.

  8. Turtleguy says:

    Hi Andy

    I too consider myself a conservationist. “In dubio pro natura” guides me.

    I came across your blog because I have also received several times the email denouncing the egg harvesting in Ostional.

    A conservation program will often affect a local community. Where the community already exists in a sensitive area the community’s needs must be addressed. If a conservation program ignores the local community one can expect strong resistance which obviously can be counterproductive to the point of driving the program to failure and the eventual destruction of the resource. The community must be educated about the wisdom of the goals of conservation and included in its execution. It must be to their benefit to support the conservation effort.

    I have not personally been to Ostional during an arribada but would like to see firsthand what actually goes on.

    There is an excellent peer-reviewed paper on the Ostional egg harvesting project that I highly recommend you and your blog followers read: http://www.aseanbiodiversity.info/Abstract/51009900.pdf

    As maligned as this project has been through well intentioned but poorly informed bloggers, I would hate to imagine how many turtles would be nesting on the Ostional beach if they did not create the egg harvesting project so many years ago. A major nesting ground for Kemp’s Ridleys was almost completely lost on the gulf coast of Mexico if not for the creation of a conservation program there that is bringing them back.

    Data shows that the population of nesting turtles on the Ostional beach seems to be slowly increasing as are the number of successful hatchings. The harvested eggs make up less than 1% of the total number of eggs laid on the beach. The activities of the locally-run organization that operates the harvest has benefited both the community and the turtles. Win-win.

    I appreciate your post and your attempt to be objective but one phrase you use has caught my interest. Could you please check your data that supports your claim for “rampant poaching of all types of sea turtle eggs on both coasts” as a result of the legalization of egg harvesting in Ostional. You use this term three times in your blog so it is taken as a statement with some conviction. I’m not saying I have data that shows otherwise but if it is more of a theoretical statement you should say so. Links to any published data would be appreciated because I am interested in this subject.

    I mention this because using a term like “rampant poaching” opens the door for other people to use the term (specifically Barbara in her own blog) where she quotes you (http://barcann.livejournal.com/165241.html). This does not help the dissemination of objective information. Others could use this term to the detriment of the program in Ostional and cite you.

    The folks from the Sea Turtle Conservancy (formerly known as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation) would be happy to tell you where you can find their data on nest poaching on the Tortuguero beach for the last fifty years. Poaching is a problem on that beach but I would not consider it rampant (admittedly a subjective term) or having increased as a result of anything going on in Ostional

    In the above-mentioned study, people in the community of Ostional itself were interviewed and only 7-8% of them considered illegal harvesting a threat to the project. This tells me that there is relatively little illegal poaching there perhaps due to the community-based policing of the activity. This community policing is probably why there are no national park guards seen in the photos as I saw mentioned in another blog somewhere.

    The Sea Turtle Conservancy has been working with MINAET to help educate the judges who are responsible for deciding cases of sea turtle egg poaching. There are physical differences in the eggs of different species of turtles and knowing this difference is important to be able to convict an accused.

    Keep up the great work. We all need to do more to conserve this poor planet.

    • Andy Bystrom says:

      Hi Turtleguy.

      Thanks for the comments. A quick clarification–I only write “rampant poaching” 1 time in the post, not 3. This statement is taken from Pretoma’s 14 years worth of data from various turtle nesting sites on the Pacific coast, 7 years of data from Sea Turtles Forever, and a decade of data from Widecast on the Atlantic side. Poacing rates are near 100% on beaches where there are no nightly patrols. I totally agree that the Ostional egg take has led to improved local social development and I’m not questioning this in my post. My question remains, is it viable from a species conservation perspective to legalize an activity one beach, make it illegal on every other beach, and then not put the proper resources in place to enforce the law?


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