THE population of the American Pacific Leatherback Turtle went from tens of thousands in the 1980s to only a few hundred now – a 97% decrease in the past 20 years, according to Roderic Mast, president of the International Sea Turtle Society (ISTS).
The decline of marine turtle populations was the focus this week of more than 1,000 scientists from 78 countries gathered for the 24th Annual Sea Turtle Symposium.
It was the largest gathering of specialists focused on sea turtles in history, according to organizers, which include the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), the ISTS and Conservation International’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science.
“THIS symposium represents a unique opportunity to create regional and global alliances that will help us face the forces that are threatening these species,” said Environment and Energy Minister Carlos Rodríguez.
Participants came from nearby countries and from as far as Southeast Asia. Mast said Costa Rica is an ideal location for the symposium, which has been held in places such as the United States, Mexico and Malaysia in the past, because Costa Rica is “the birthplace of modern sea turtle biology.”
“It’s a place where we can see both the challenges of conservation and the solutions happening at the same time,” Mast said. “There’s plenty to keep a sea-turtle biologist happy down here.”
HE said Costa Rica stands out because of widespread education regarding conservation. He said laws here protecting marine life are similar to those in Mexico, but in Costa Rica there has been a nationwide commitment to encourage people to become conservationists.
The symposium on Monday saw the announcement of a $3.1 million, multinational effort to preserve marine life in the form of a protected corridor to safeguard migratory routes for a variety of marine life, including sea turtles and blue whales.
The corridor, called the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape, will cover 211 million hectares (521 million acres) from the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador to CocosIslandNational Park in Costa Rica.
The project received more than $1.5 million from the United Nations Foundation, according to Conservation International.
“THIS Seascape initiative is vitally important to the health of our ocean and we certainly hope it becomes a model for marine conservation around the world,” said Timothy Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation, in a press release about the corridor.
Mast said at least $300,000 will go toward land purchases and land-based conservation efforts to provide safe nesting sites for sea turtles.
Also announced during the symposium were the preliminary results of a study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) regarding economic trends surrounding sea-turtle use.
The study concluded that marine turtles are worth more alive than dead, because non-consumptive uses, such as eco-tourism, are much more lucrative than consumptive uses, such as the use of turtles for eggs, meat, and bones, explained Carl Drews, one of the specialists from the WWF who conducted the study between September and December 2003.
“WITH this study, we’re putting a new dimension over the table of discussion of the use of sea turtles and the economic effects of failure in conservation efforts,” Drews told The Tico Times this week.
The preliminary results showed that in Ostional, a sea turtle-nesting beach on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast, turtle eggs brought in $992,850 in 2002.
But in Tortuguero, on the northern Caribbean coast, where the turtles are a major tourist attraction, 26,292 visitors drew an estimated $6.7 million that same year, the report said.
Aside from sea-turtle specialists, a wide variety of sea-turtle enthusiasts attended the event.
“Lots of people are here because they care about sea turtles,” he said. “The one thing they all have in common is a heartfelt connection with sea turtles – almost a spiritual connection with sea turtles that is palpable and deep.”
The event was preceded by a meeting of Latin American turtle specialists in Ostional last week.