OSTIONAL, Santa Cruz – Gerardo Chaves, a biologist who dedicates his life to studying the endangered Pacific olive ridley sea turtle, loves to gulp down a couple of their eggs, raw, before heading to bed.
A thick man with a broad, trimmed mustache and glasses, Chaves, 41, lives by the ebb and flow of the turtles on the beach of Ostional – a small town on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica’s NicoyaPeninsula, and one of the top three nesting beaches for this species.
Here, every 15-30 days, olive ridley females drag themselves ashore to nest by the tens and hundreds of thousands in a phenomenon called an arribada, or arrival.
Chaves considers himself a conservationist. However, his penchant for the animal’s eggs puts him at odds with many turtle conservation groups, which strongly oppose the harvesting or consumption of any turtle product, especially their eggs.
The olive ridley, like all sea turtles, is an endangered species, at risk because it is killed by fishing boats and fishing nets, its habitat is eroded by beach development and its eggs are dug up, sold and eaten for their supposed aphrodisiacal qualities. Because of this, the harvesting of turtle eggs is illegal in many countries – including Costa Rica, except at Ostional – and campaigned against by most environmental organizations.
Eggs from Ostional are different, the biologist insists. A unique, government-approved program allows members of the community to take a portion of eggs each arribada and commercialize them, and they, in turn,meticulously care for the beaches and the turtles that fill them with life. According to community leaders and Chaves, who works for the University of Costa Rica (UCR), the controversial program is linked to another unique Ostional phenomenon: while olive ridleys are diminishing at many other beaches around the world, at Ostional, and neighboring beaches, their numbers have been steadily growing for years.
But not all share his optimism, Chaves readily admits.
Because the project promotes the consumption of turtle eggs, it is “antagonistic to the philosophy of almost all the NGOs working in the country,” Chaves says.
Some also question the biologist’s assertion that the number of turtles at Ostional is rising, saying his data is flawed.
Gilberth Rojas, 44, is something like a mayor in Ostional. A little more than a year ago, he was elected president of the Ostional Integral Development Association (ADIO), which oversees everything the community does that is related to turtles.
For an impromptu afternoon meeting, he drags a colored plastic table under the almond tree in his front yard. Sitting in a matching plastic chair, he speaks passionately about Ostional – an adopted home where he has lived for 27 years.
“What this town does is unique on planet Earth,” Rojas says. “The project symbolizes protection and conservation of the turtle resource.”
For almost 20 years, Ostional has enjoyed exclusive permission from the Costa Rican government to dig up some of the turtle’s eggs following every arribada and sell them around the country. In return, and in their own best interest, community guards watch over the remaining nests and look out for would-be poachers; association members regularly clean the Ostional beach and an additional six kilometers of neighboring beach; and when the turtles are born, the members of the association stand guard and protect the hatchlings from the vultures, stray dogs and other predators that would eat them before they make it to the sea.
The program is based on research by the University of Costa Rica (UCR) showing that the sheer number of turtles that nest at Ostional causes a decrease in survival rates. With as many as one million females laying their eggs on approximately four kilometers of beach (as many as 12 nests per square meter), the turtles unearth each other’s nests and nest on top of each other’s eggs. UCR studies carried out before the start of the Ostional program found that as many as 90-93% of the eggs laid in an arribada were ruined.
An annual permit issued by the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) and the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) allows ADIO to harvest all the eggs it wants for the first 36 hours of an arribada and sell them.
Arribadas last anywhere from a few days to a week or more, the turtles sometimes coming only at night, other times beaching themselves during the day as well.
Most of the earnings from the sale of the eggs – 70% – is split evenly among the approximately 240 “benefit members” of the association who worked during the arribada. While anyone 15 or older in the community can be a member of ADIO and help out in the harvesting, only those who were born in Ostional, or their children, can be benefit members.
The other 30% goes to ADIO’s coffers to be spent on various community projects, such as road improvements, gutters and sewers, scholarships for students, building and maintaining schools and other community buildings in this town of approximately 700 residents.
Earlier in the day, Rojas, like nearly everybody in Ostional, attended a funeral at the town’s beachside cemetery. The woman who died was buried in a coffin purchased by ADIO, and the family received the standard ¢50,000 ($100) the association provides when a member dies.
“It’s not much. It’s symbolic, more than anything,” Rojas explains.
Nor is the pay much. Association members packed a total of 510,000 olive ridley eggs from this recent arribada and sent them off to sale points around the country.
After the eggs have been dug up, washed, packaged, and shipped out in trucks, the sales are expected to produce about $60 for each benefit member. Rojas, who is not a benefit member and makes no profit from his membership in ADIO, estimates benefit members earn anywhere from $10-100 a month.
While the program brings in approximately $230,000 a year, Rojas says the true value of the hours put in is about $770,000-970,000 a year.
More Turtles Arriving?
The program is bolstered by continued UCR research – mostly carried out by Chaves – that has shown a steady rise in the number of olive ridley turtles arriving to nest at Ostional, and a growing number of turtles at neighboring beaches. According to UCR data and community accounts, between the first arribada ever recorded in Ostional, in 1959, and the late 1980s, the turtles nested only on Ostional’s principal beach. However, in the years since the program began, the arribada has spread to an additional three kilometers of neighboring beaches.
“In some arribadas, the number of turtles at the neighboring beaches is more than at the Ostional’s principal beach,” Chaves said.
According to Chaves, this growing number of olive ridleys arriving for the arribada is also unique to Ostional.
“This is the only beach in the world that has increased the number of nesting (olive ridley) turtles,” the biologist boasts. For Chaves, the link appears clear: as the community has thinned the number of nests, and cares for the turtles and the beach, the number of nesting females has risen. Buying Ostional eggs therefore supports the conservation and protection of the olive ridley turtle, he asserts.
In the first two nights of a recent arribada last month, Chaves and his two student volunteers counted 50,000 turtles.
“And there are still five days left,”Chaves says, adding that approximately 80% of the turtles in an arribada arrive in the first three days.
During this year’s largest arribada so far, which began Sept. 26 and lasted 11 days, Chaves and other volunteers estimated 260,000 turtles. The biologist points out this figure does not include the three kilometers of neighboring beaches where the arribada also comes ashore. The largest recorded arribada, according to Chaves’ statistics, was in 2000, with more than 1.2 million olive ridleys at Ostional and neighboring beaches.
He estimates that in the nearly two decades of collection, the community has taken a total of 70 million eggs.
“That seems like a lot, but sometimes in just one arribada the turtles will lay that many eggs. So it’s equivalent to having collected only one arribada,” Chaves said.
“In Ostional, we have a program that is a total socioeconomic success,” says Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA).
“We see a problem in the scientific part.” PRETOMA works extensively in Costa Rica to protect sea turtles and their nests, educating fishermen and residents at nesting beaches around the country about turtle conservation.
According to Arauz, the UCR used one method for counting olive ridleys at Ostional from 1983-1996, and then switched to a different methodology.
However, he charges, the university continues to compare the current data to the old as if they were gathered the same way.
“Ever since they started using the new methods, their arribadas are 10 times bigger than they used to be,”Arauz says. “These are two different methods that can’t be compared.”
The turtle conservationist says the older method – which consisted of designating three 110-by-15-meter quadrants where turtles were counted and extrapolating the number for the entire beach – was more likely to underestimate the numbers because arribadas often shift where they come ashore, and could miss the quadrants entirely. The current method – where Chaves and volunteers walk the 900-meter length of Ostional’s principal nesting beach, counting all the turtles they find in the wet area of the sand, wait ten minutes and return, for as long as the turtles are coming ashore en masse – is more likely to overestimate, Arauz said. He believes the university should reevaluate its science.
Because the numbers are unreliable, Arauz says it is impossible to know for sure what effect the Ostional program is having on the turtles.
“All I can say is there are still a lot of turtles in Ostional, and that could be for a lot of reasons,” Arauz continued. “What is the impact of harvesting eggs on the turtle population? Does it increase the hatching success? Are there more turtles or less turtles after 20 years of harvesting? We don’t know.”
How Ostional Eggs are Harvested
Life in Ostional is intertwined with the rhythm of the Pacific olive ridley sea turtle. Following the cycles of the moon, between tens and hundreds of thousand of olive ridley females amass in the surf and spontaneously drag themselves from the sea to lay their eggs in the sand of Ostional’s beach, on the Pacific coast of the NicoyaPeninsula.
The morning after the mass nesting – called an arribada – begins, more than 200 members of the Ostional Integral Development Association (ADIO) descend upon the beach, splitting into groups to harvest the eggs laid the night before. Young men find the nests and women unearth the eggs and put them into nylon grain sacks that the young men carry to storage when full. Children play in the sand, or taunt sea turtles that are still arriving from the ocean. A few tourists, foreigners and Ticos, watch, ask questions and get their photos taken as they scoop up eggs alongside the locals.
The eggs are collected only during the first three days of the arribada, a phenomenon that can last 7-11 days, and are later washed in the ocean. This removes bacteria and the shock of the saltwater halts the development of the turtle yolk into an embryo, according to University of Costa Rica biologist Gerardo Chaves. They are then packaged into specially printed bags of 200 units and stamped to identify them as coming from Ostional.
From Ostional, the bags are shipped out by the hundreds of thousands to bars, restaurants and supermarkets around the country, where distributors and buyers are given receipts stamped by the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) and ADIO. Anyone these distributors sell to receives an authorized factura (receipt), also stamped by INCOPESCA and ADIO.
ADIO president Gilberth Rojas says consumers should ask to see an authorized factura before purchasing turtle eggs from a bar or restaurant to be sure they are from Ostional, and be sure their purchase will help preserve the olive ridley and not diminish the endangered species’ numbers.