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The Mexican family who gave up fishing to monitor and rescue sea turtles

by Astrid Arellano – MongaBayCreative Commons

  • The Kino Bay Turtle Group is made up of a family of former fishers from the state of Sonora in northwestern Mexico.
  • The group keeps a close watch on sea turtles in the La Cruz Lagoon, a Ramsar site spanning 6,665 hectares (about 16,470 acres), monitoring the animals, rescuing any that become entangled and educating the public about their importance.
  • The group has captured and logged data on more than 800 sea turtles; it is now training a team of Indigenous Comcáac youth to form their own turtle group and begin monitoring and conservation work along a 10-kilometer (6-mile) stretch of coast in Sonora.

(MongaBay) – BAHÍA DE KINO, Mexico — For several years, Cosme Becerra was tasked with sacrificing a sea turtle to be eaten at a festival. In the mid-1990s, the fisherman received a large live turtle several days before one of these events. He kept the turtle in his family’s bathroom, waiting for the day of the festival. “But it wouldn’t stop making a noise … ‘hoooo’… ‘hoooo,’” said Becerra, imitating the animal’s wheeze that he heard night after night.

“That sigh — that noise — wouldn’t let me sleep,” said Becerra. “On one side, I was hearing it, and on the other side, Moni, my wife, would not let me sleep, saying to me: ‘Poor little thing, she looks like a woman; look at how she’s crying. Did you see her tears? They’re all over the floor. … Let her go, please.’” Although he did not want to, because the turtle “belonged” to somebody else, Mónica’s insistence made Becerra return the turtle to the sea the following day.

“We released her, and since then, we have not gone back to consuming turtles or killing them,” Becerra said of that moment, which is seared in his memory. Before a Mexican law prohibited the practice in 1990, fishers saw turtles they occasionally caught by accident as a source of extra income that could help in the event of an economic emergency, like when one of the children in the Becerra family was hospitalized. For that reason, years later, in 2010, Cosme Becerra wanted to return the favor: He decided to formally dedicate his time to the conservation of turtles in Kino Bay (or Bahía de Kino), a small fishing community with just over 6,400 residents located in the state of Sonora in northwestern Mexico.

A green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). Image by Astrid Arellano.

Cosme Becerra left the fishing industry, and since 2007 he has worked as a boat captain for marine mammal-monitoring efforts run by the Prescott Center, an Arizona-based educational institution with facilities in Kino Bay that focuses on social and environmental studies. Through this work, Becerra convinced his family that the future was in wildlife conservation.

Now, the Becerra family — made up of about 15 relatives, including spouses, parents, siblings, cousins, children and grandchildren — practices sustainable fishing. They combine this with other professions and dedicate part of their time to conservation work. In order to fund this conservation work, they turn to programs offered by nongovernmental organizations or environmental institutions within the Mexican government. However, the group has not always managed to obtain what they need to go out to sea and monitor sea turtles.

The Becerra family is dedicated to conservation. The family is from the fishing community of Kino Bay, in the state of Sonora in northwestern Mexico. Image courtesy of the Kino Bay Turtle Group.

In any case, the family invested their savings and income to buy a boat, which they named “La Tortuguera” after the Spanish word for turtle. They now use this boat to monitor turtles and rescue them from abandoned fishing gear. Together, the family formed the Kino Bay Turtle Group (or Grupo Tortuguero de Bahía de Kino).

“Now we are trying to flip the coin over and — with our work — thank these species. It is satisfying to feel highlighted by the community, by the people, by the children,” said Becerra. Today, with their 12 years of work, the family has captured, documented and released 814 green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea).

The Becerra family’s boat, “La Tortuguera.” Image by Astrid Arellano.

The La Cruz Lagoon: a wetland of international importance

The Becerra family’s monitoring work focuses on the La Cruz Lagoon (known as the Laguna La Cruz or Estero Santa Cruz in Spanish). The lagoon, a Ramsar site that spans 6,665 hectares (about 16,470 acres), is home to numerous species, some of them protected by national and international laws. Among them are 11 species of birds at some level of risk according to the IUCN, like the near-threatened elegant tern (Thalasseus elegans). Two species of plants are listed as threatened by Mexico: the black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) and the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). The endangered green sea turtle is the Kino Bay Turtle Group‘s main research subject because it is the most common turtle species in the wetland, which is an important feeding area for them.

A poster about the green sea turtle, the La Cruz Lagoon and the work of the Kino Bay Turtle Group. Image by Astrid Arellano.

The La Cruz Lagoon is a silent place, its calmness only broken by the occasional passage of a motorboat. Its still waters, which are no more than 5 meters (about 16 feet) deep in some areas, are threatened by shrimp farms. According to its Ramsar document, published in 2013, the lagoon’s 16 shrimp farms include more than 4,507 hectares (about 11,137 acres) of ponds. Four of these ponds extract water from a channel that connects to the lagoon and then discharge their effluent into another channel located less than 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the lagoon. This has caused significantly elevated saline levels, and even though the lagoon has the ability to dilute the salinity, “it [shows] changes generated by these effluents due to the accumulation of solids, organic material, primary productivity, and bacterial biomass, which affects biogeochemical processes and environmental conditions,” according to the document.

The Kino Bay Turtle Group began working formally in this area in 2010, when it received funding for sea turtle conservation from the Conservation Program for Sustainable Development of the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP). The group used the funding to bring in instructors from the Las Californias Turtle Group, a network based in La Paz, Baja California Sur, to train the team both in theory and in practice, with a first monitoring of turtles on San Pedro Mártir Island.

“From there, we have been monitoring turtles [and] doing surveillance and sanitation in the lagoon, which then became a Ramsar site between 2013 and 2014,” said Becerra.

A turtle captured in a net as part of the monitoring work in the La Cruz Lagoon. Image by Astrid Arellano.

Karen Oceguera, a marine biologist and representative of the Las Californias Turtle Group, said the work of the Kino Bay team has been instrumental in determining the population status of the turtles that visit this feeding and development area.

“This team, led by Cosme Becerra, has been an example of perseverance and commitment to continue moving forward,” said Oceguera. “The data generated by the capture, tagging and release [of the turtles] have been the basis for having a broader knowledge of sea turtles in feeding areas. Thanks to the tagging [that they do] with metal plates that are placed on each captured turtle, when they are captured again — or recaptured — it provides very valuable information about their growth and, on occasion, turtles are captured that have been tagged in other areas [of the country] where this monitoring is done, and that indicates the movement of the turtles in different areas,” said Oceguera.

Over the years, the Kino Bay Turtle Group completed several government trainings from CONANP and received a certification from the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection, in addition to working with academic institutions like the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico and the Las Californias Turtle Group.

The group is also constantly searching for resources through federal programs to help maintain the project. At the same time, they made important allies, like the Prescott Center, which has managed to receive international funding for the monitoring sessions. For the group’s work, in late 2020, Cosme Becerra received the Recognition for the Conservation of Nature, an award granted every year by CONANP.

Cosme Becerra, the leader of the Kino Bay Turtle Group, collecting data on a green sea turtle. Image by Astrid Arellano.

Rodrigo Trejo, coordinator of the Prescott Center’s Wetland Conservation and Community Projects Program , said the information generated by the Kino Bay Turtle Group in the La Cruz Lagoon and through community science is very valuable. He added that this work is generally carried out by universities or research centers, and local knowledge is not always recognized.

“But here, those who are generating the information are the community [members], and that is more important and more interesting,” Trejo said. “At some point, Cosme Becerra sold or consumed turtles, so it is these same people who have had a paradigm shift — a deconstruction of the practices that their community had — [and] these are the same ones who are generating research and scientific databases. I believe this speaks to empowerment [and] to community development at a local level that is worth encouraging,” he said.

Today, in addition to monitoring turtles, the Kino Bay Turtle Group is dedicated to environmental education in elementary schools and with groups of high schoolers interested in ecology. The group also works with students from the U.S. who visit the Prescott Center and with fishers, whom they have educated to turn in any sea turtles that they encounter entangled in ghost fishing gear.

Tourists watch and photograph turtles while the Kino Bay Turtle Group carries out its activities and explains the importance of conserving the turtles. Image by Astrid Arellano.

A new turtle group in Comcáac territory

The Becerra family is now leading an important effort: training a team of Indigenous Comcáac youth between the ages of 14 and 22 to form their own turtle group and begin monitoring and conservation work along a 10-kilometer (6-mile) stretch of coast from the neighboring community of Punta Chueca — where the Comcáac live — north to the Infiernillo Channel. The Infiernillo Channel is a Ramsar site characterized by seagrass beds, mangrove estuaries and small coral reefs. These reefs are home to hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), loggerhead (Caretta caretta), leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) and green sea turtles, among many other marine species.

One morning in May 2022, five of the 10 young people who make up the new group climbed aboard La Tortuguera with Cosme Becerra and two of his relatives to complete their second training session. There, they were trained to capture turtles using a 130-meter (427-foot) nylon net that they stretch out just past the beach and to sharpen their gaze so they could identify the moment when a turtle is caught. When this happens, the attached buoys sink and the turtle comes out to breathe, wanting to free itself. At that moment, the boat heads toward the turtle to take the animal on board and prevent it from experiencing stress. During this particular training session, this process occurred seven times.

The Comcáac team works on the identification of a recaptured green sea turtle. The team also cleaned one of the metal plates installed on the turtle’s hind flipper. This turtle was first captured in September 2020. Image by Astrid Arellano.
Three members of the Comcáac team work on taking photographs and recording data from captured turtles. Image by Astrid Arellano.

These turtles were then taken to the beach to be measured, weighed, tagged with plates on their hind flippers, recorded and released. There, girls, boys and adults approached out of curiosity to see the animals. Members of the Kino Bay Turtle Group explained the importance of their work, step by step, as they often do in order to raise awareness.

The team also works to identify abnormalities in the turtles. In a few, they detected fibropapillomatosis, a disease that causes wart-like tumors, which Becerra attributes to heavy metal pollution in the ocean. All of this information is collected and sent by the Las Californias Turtle Group to be fed into a database that contributes to scientific research and conservation.

Becerra added that the number of turtles observed in the lagoon has increased over the years, but this is not necessarily due to these migratory species visiting the area more, because the team also increased its monitoring efforts with more trips to the area per month.

“There are years when we have no support and there are years when we have twice as much [as normal],” said Becerra. “Before, we only used to catch between 40 and a maximum of 80 turtles per year. … Now, we are catching between 130 and 140. For 2022, I believe we will surpass that mark, because every year we are working more than the year before, but that is because of our effort and because we have more support,” said Becerra. (This story was originally published in Spanish on Mongabay’s Latam site in June 2022.)

Measuring the tail of a green sea turtle. Image by Astrid Arellano.

Aarón Barnett is a 28-year-old Comcáac conservationist and leader of the new turtle group due to his experience with environmental topics in his ancestral territory since he was very young. He said his culture is closely linked to marine life, as a fishing community. However, they have a special appreciation for sea turtles because they are part of the community’s worldview. According to the Comcáac people, it was a sea turtle that helped Hant Caai, their creator, to form the Earth using sand that it brought from the bottom of the sea between its claws.

“There is an exchange of knowledge, which is important, because in some way, we also contribute to conservation in a natural way,” said Barnett. “We are always on the lookout for the well-being of all the species in the region because we depend on this; we are fishers; we are a community that depends on the sea. So, both in the sea and on land, we are always watching. For this reason, we are ready to share this information so that more people know about it and become interested in caring for the land,” he said.

Comcáac youth during their training with the Kino Bay Turtle Group. Image by Astrid Arellano.

In the past, sea turtles also served as food for the ancestors of the Comcáac people. The turtles helped them survive in difficult times, so Barnett agrees with Becerra that it is time to return the favor to the animals.

“Thanks to this species, our tribe managed to survive,” said Barnett. “Because of them we are still here, and the commitment that we have as a new generation is to take care of them. We want more people to be conscious of the consumption of this species because even today, there are people who do not acknowledge all of this and they promote these illegal sales. We are a new, more conscious generation, and joining this cause is everyone’s commitment — not only here in this region, but all over the world, because this is a very beautiful species that has given us so many things.”

A green sea turtle returning to the sea after the Kino Bay Turtle Group collected the data they need. Image by Astrid Arellano.

According to Cosme Becerra, having a partner team working in the Infiernillo Channel is important because many helping hands will always be needed — here and throughout the world.

“We are in a lagoon that only measures 6,000 hectares [about 14,826 acres]and it is very important, because we are capturing turtles,” said Becerra. “But they have a channel of 29,000 hectares [about 71,661 acres] and 32 kilometers [about 20 miles] in length. They have the best-conserved seagrass beds, the turtles’ favorite; for that reason, it’s super important. These are the youth of the future who are teaching and raising awareness in their community to help stop consumption,” said Becerra.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on June 15, 2022.

by Astrid Arellano – MongaBayCreative Commons

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