CAMPECHE Mexico – On the shores of Seybaplaya in Campeche, Mexico, a man releases hatchlings into the moonlight, making sure they successfully stumble their way into the dark surf. Expecting nothing in return, Luis Antonio Góngora Domínguez dedicates himself to the protection of the critically endangered species after he finishes his day job, his carefully organized records revealing that since 2016 he has helped around 13,450 hatchlings get to sea.
Saving the Hawksbill sea turtle – named for its unique sharp, curved beak and highly coveted patterned shell – is beyond the capabilities of one man, but one man’s focus and drive can also be a call to arms: over the years this little-known project has begun to attract local and now international recognition.
The Hawksbill sea turtle, or Eretmochelys imbricata, is one of the most endangered marine animals worldwide, with only 20,000 nesting females remaining and a population decline of more than 80% in the last 100 years. The smallest of the seven common sea turtles, they were hunted nearly to extinction for the use of their shells in jewelry, hair clips, and other trinkets, and are still threatened today by the strong black market that persists even after the trade was officially outlawed in 1992.
It is well known that the most vulnerable and dangerous moments of a sea turtle’s life are within the period from egg to ocean, so their protection during this stage is one of the key components of sea turtle conservation. Luis focuses his work on three beaches in Seybaplaya, but as coastal development increasingly degrades turtle habitat, each site comes with its own set of risks.
The first, Payucan, is divided by illegal stone walls with the purpose of sectioning off the beach to various vacationers. The walls force the turtles closer to the water, where they are at risk of drowning before they can dig themselves to the surface. Another beach to the west runs along the edge of the town and has a busy road running parallel to the coast, which boasts many bright street lamps that flush out the moonlight and draw turtles instead to the road, where moving vehicles await.
Finally, Luis has a special permit for a beach between both of these, located within an industrial port. While its high security and tall, barbed wire fences keep out the general public, the offshore mechanization threatens to kill the sea turtles within the first few moments of their lives, as well as when the mothers attempt to return and lay their eggs.
Once the turtle hatchlings make it to sea, however, the danger only increases. Hawksbill sea turtles do not reach sexual maturity until they are at least 20 years old, and leading up to that period they could be killed by ingesting or drowning in plastic pollution and fishing gear, struck by the propellers of boats, or hunted for their shells.
For the past five years, the local non-profit Yuumtsil Káak Náab, of which Luis is the founder, has collaborated with Ninth Wave, a socio-environmental NGO, to promote the successful hatching of sea turtles while engaging the surrounding community.
Just recently, the celebration of World Oceans Day on June 8th also marked a new partnership with the international non-profit Plastic Oceans, forming part of what is to be a new program of Blue Communities. The goal of the project is to increase the number of nests, hatchlings, and baby turtles that make it to sea, organizing members of the organizations and volunteers in the monitoring of nests, and intervening when necessary to secure or relocate eggs that are in danger, but the beating heart of the project really lies in working alongside the local community to activate a local civic custodianship of their natural landscape.
Consequently, turtle conservation is embedded in marine conservation and environmental stewardship surpasses the protection of nests and assistance to hatchlings. The Seybaplaya Blue Communities project reflects such interconnectivity by incorporating the local community, providing education and events to encourage the appreciation not just of marine conservation initiatives but progressive engagement with all aspects of responsible environmental behavior.
They have community programs in place to reduce plastic pollution, including hosting a weekly green market, piloting a zero waste program in local schools, and organizing beach cleanups. The project also shares research with the Mexican Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) to help increase government capacity in promoting conservation, and the project hosts an annual Turtle Festival, along with several workshops to educate members of the community about plastic pollution, conservation, and ecotourism.
Sea turtles are vital components of marine ecosystems, and often used as indicators of the health of our oceans. As such, the conservation of Hawksbill sea turtles and the five other species of sea turtles that are classified as endangered or threatened go far beyond the community of Seybaplaya. There is much work to be done, but the efforts of Luis present an optimistic example of how awareness and concern about marine life can start as small as a single species of turtle and grow to encompass local support, international recognition, and several other aspects of environmental conservation.
Once we realize how a specific endangered species inextricably connects to the overarching health of our planet and ourselves, it becomes more imperative than ever to take a concerted action to preserve it.
For The Yucatan Times
Raquel Anais Smith
Raquel Anais Smith is a freelance writer specializing in environmental features, published across a variety of international online and print media.