Pope Asked to Help Save Sea Turtles

By Cat Lazaroff

LOS ANGELES, California, March 15, 2002 (ENS) - A California based conservation group has written to the Vatican asking that turtle meat be declared red meat, and therefore off limits to practicing Catholics during Lent. The group says that consumption of illegally caught turtles is one of the major threats to sea turtles in southern California and Mexico.


Sea turtle carapaces collected over two years in the Bahia Magdalena region. (Photo by Dr. Wallace Nichols, WiLDCOAST)
Though it has been illegal to harvest and consume sea turtle in Mexico for more than a decade, black market demand for endangered sea turtle meat is widespread in both Southern California and Mexico. Biologists believe that poaching is the main reason for the population's rapid decline over the past 30 years.

Easter Week - Semana Santa in Spanish - is a particularly deadly time for sea turtles. As many as 5,000 turtles will meet with poacher's nets in coming weeks and be served for Easter dinner in some of the region's wealthiest households.

The tradition of eating sea turtle for Semana Santa has its roots in religion. Many abstain from eating meat during this holy time in order to obey Lenten rules.


Endangered loggerhead sea turtles are among those that end up on some dinner tables during Lent. (Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA))
Because sea turtles swim, many consider them to be fish, permitted food during Lent. The Sea Turtle Conservation Network of the Californias, a coalition of fishermen, conservationists and researchers, has asked the Vatican to issue an official position that declares sea turtle flesh is red meat, not fish or seafood, and is not appropriate food during this religious time.

If the Pope were to discourage consumption of sea turtle, thousands of these critically endangered animals would be saved, the coalition argues.

"Many of the consumers consider sea turtle to be 'fish' because it swims," the letter notes. "We humbly request that your holiness officially clarify that sea turtle flesh is meat and inappropriate for consumption during Lent."

The letter also urges the pope to "ask members of the Catholic Church to abide by the many worthy laws forbidding turtle capture and consumption in Mexico and the United States."


Black turtle carapaces in collected from dumps and fish camps near Bahia Magdalena in Baja California (Photo by Dr. Wallace Nichols, WiLDCOAST)
At a news conference in Los Angeles, activists and fishers called on consumers in the U.S. to voluntarily abstain from eating any sea turtle meat.

"Please don't harvest these turtles and don't eat them," said Adan Hernandez, a student and part time fisher from Magdalena Bay in Baja California. "We know it's crossing the border. We know that some restaurants offer it and it's reaching" southern California.

The black market turtle trade is largely supported by wealthy consumers, said Baja fisher Javier Villavicencio.

"Local fishermen like me, we don't eat them," Villavicencio said. "We can't afford it."


Thousands of green sea turtles are killed by poachers every year. (Photo courtesy 1998 International Year of the Ocean)
Mexican writer and environmentalist Homero Aridjis said the pope could announce the church's policy at a scheduled Mass in Mexico City this June.

"In a Catholic country like Mexico, a statement could be very important," said Aridjis, who is president of Mexico conservation coalition Grupo de los Cien (Group of 100).

About 35,000 endangered sea turtles are slaughtered off the coasts of Baja California each year, making its waters the most dangerous place for a sea turtle to swim anywhere in the world, says Dr. Wallace Nichols, a sea turtle biologist and director of the conservation group WiLDCOAST.

"The consumption of sea turtle meat remains the main barrier to the species recovery," said Nichols. "WiLDCOAST is working with communities in Baja to reverse this trend."


A hawksbill turtle caught in Baja California. (Photo WiLDCOAST)
"By recruiting local fisherman to work on monitoring teams, we have inspired them to be some of the world's best conservationists," Nichols explained. "They are in the water everyday confronting poachers and confiscating illegal nets and have spread the word about the sea turtle's endangered status through their communities. Their efforts have made it much harder to move a 300 pound turtle from remote fishing villages to the cities where it can be sold."

Aridjis has urged the U.S. and Mexican governments to improve enforcement of the 1990 presidential ban on sea turtle harvesting.

"Significant strides have been made in the protection of sea turtle nesting beaches. Efforts must now be turned towards halting the black market trade of sea turtle meat," said Aridjis. "Poachers are not only driving the sea turtle population into extinction, they are destroying their own communities by perpetuating crime and corruption."