Island of Kish, Iran and Majuro Children, Marschall Islands; By Mark Edward Harris

Kish Iran Mark Edward Harris

Kish Iran Mark Edwards Harris
Island of Kish, Iran

By © Mark Edward Harris

“On the Iranian island of Kish in the Persian Gulf, a grandfather holds up his granddaughter
as the sun sets behind the stranded Greek cargo ship the Koula F, which ran aground in 1966.”

This photograph was taken in 2008.

Harris’s uncommonly keen eye turns photos of people and their environments into seductive images that banish travel photography clichés. The viewer is left with a fresh sense of wonder at the world’s beauty and the artist’s skill.

Mark Edward Harris Majuro, Wanderlust
Majuro Children, Marshall Islands

By Mark Edward Harris

“The photograph is of children playing on the island of Majuro in the Marshall Islands in 1997.”

Majuro Children is featured on the cover of Mark Edward Harris – Wanderlust Book

Wanderlust takes the viewer to visit tribes in northern Vietnam, down China’s Yangtze River, into the tense demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, to the top of Mt. Fuji, through Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, and around the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the exotic islands of the South Pacific and the Caribbean.

Colombian Pacific Beaches at the Mouth of Bahia de Buenaventura; By William J. Neal & Orrin H. Pilkey

By William J. Neal and Orrin H. Pilkey

Among the world’s most remote beaches are those that line the 62 barrier islands of Colombia’s Pacific Coast. Only two roads lead over the Andes to access points from which the islands and their few, very small, subsistence coastal villages can be reached by boat.

The largest community is the port city of Buenaventura (population ~325,000), well inland at the head of Bahia de Buenaventura, with boat access to the local tourist village of La Bocana at the mouth of the bay. Near this village are small headland beaches, and across the mouth of the bay are the barrier-island beaches on El Soldado and Santa Barbara islands.The only other coastal city on the Pacific Coast of Colombia is Tumaco (population 90,000) near the border with Ecuador. There are a number of small villages on the islands, most with populations of a few hundred.

The origin and character of these beaches are representative of much of Colombia’s Pacific Coast, and their near-natural state means that island and beach dynamics have been little influenced by humans. This character and their location on a tectonically active plate boundary are what led us to make coring expeditions to the islands in search of historic tsunami deposits.

Located just north of the Equator, the islands are covered by tropical rainforest and backed by extensive mangrove swamps, rather than the more familiar salt marshes of mid-latitude barriers. Rainfall here is about 200 inches per year, and on the nearby crest of the Andes, 25 miles from the coast, as much as 300 inches per year. The islands formed on the edge of the narrow coastal plain adjacent to the Northern Andes.

The sand supply for the beaches comes from numerous short streams that feed large volumes of sediment directly to the inlets and thence to the beaches. The immediate Andes sediment source for the beaches is reflected in the color and composition of the sand. The fine-to-medium sand is dark green-to-gray with white specks of shell fragments. The sand is well sorted, that is, there is little variation in grain size on the beaches, except in the form of occasional shell lags. The dark color is due to the dominance of sand-sized rock fragments derived from volcanic and metamorphic rocks. In addition, the sand contains abundant dark heavy minerals such as magnetite.

Tiny mica flakes are also abundant; the flat, glassy mineral grains provide the beach with a beautiful reflective sparkle on sunny days. The presence of mica is an indication that the sand has not been transported far or weathered for very long.

The beaches of the Pacific coast of Colombia are, for the most part, peaceful, quiet, pristine and stunning in their beauty. The quiet is usually broken by birdcalls from the jungle and countless splashing, diving pelican.
—William J. Neal and Orrin H. Pilkey

Beach sand composed of abundant rock fragments and diverse minerals is an indication of immaturity. Mature beach sand such as that on Moroccan and southeastern U.S. beaches has generally lost many of its original and more unstable minerals from the source rocks except for the very stable quartz and feldspar grains and is light colored. To achieve such maturity may take millions of years.

Apparently there is a local belief that the black sand has some therapeutic effect. We watched an old man being buried by his friends as he lay on his back in a shallow ditch. He held an umbrella in his hand to ward off the rain on his still exposed head. He claimed that occasional burial in beach sand helped reduce the aches and pains from his arthritis.

The tidal amplitude here is close to 4 meters, the presumed upper limit for barrier island formation. “Dry” beach width (above the high-tide line) is narrow (tens of feet), and the high tidal range and frequent rainfall keep the beaches wet. Beach sediment is transported by longshore currents, and spits are common at the ends of the islands. Strong tidal currents carry sand out to form horn-like sand bar tidal deltas that extend far seaward from the ends of barrier islands adjacent to large inlets. These submerged ebb-tidal deltas are a navigational hazard even for the ubiquitous dugout canoes with Yamaha outboard motors. Dugout canoes are now manufactured in lumberyards.

Although storms here on the Equator are infrequent, short-term fluctuations in sea level do occur, particularly during times of El Niño when the spring high tides are at a maximum, and during which beach erosion is common (as much as 3 feet of beach retreat on a single tidal cycle). Longer-term erosion is due in part to the global sea-level rise and can be estimated from air photo studies, as well as from field evidence such as stands of dead mangrove trees being actively eroded. With the exception of the accreting spits at the end of the island, from 1961 to 1992 (dates of available air photos) El Soldado showed an average rate of erosion of 16 ft/yr, maintaining the concave seaward shape of its coast. During the same time interval, Santa Barbara Island eroded at even higher rates along its southern shore (up to 27 ft/yr), while accreting at about 33 ft/yr along its northern reach, with an even higher rate in the spits.

On average, it is likely that sea level rise is quite rapid here. Apparently, as the forces of colliding plates cause the Andes to rise, the coastal margin, including the barrier islands and beaches, subsides. Subsidence events are usually accompanied by earthquakes. The Tumaco Earthquake of 1979 caused one 50-mile-long coastal segment to subside as much as 5 feet overnite, resulting in significant and sudden beach retreat. This earthquake also caused a tsunami that resulted in 220 deaths and significant damage to the village of San Juan de la Costa.

When storms do occur, particularly at high tide, these low islands are easily over-washed, as there are no significant beachfront dunes to block the path of storm waves. Perhaps the lack of dunes occurs because the beach sand is continually wet, and sand does not readily blow landward to form dunes. Countering this is the fact that we could feel sand on our legs on windy days, indicating that sand is being transported by wind. J.R.L. Allen, British sedimentologist, made the same observation on the tropical beaches of the Niger Delta barrier islands and was puzzled about the lack of dunes there.

The most serious “fly in the ointment” is trash (garbage), lots of it, at least on the beaches closest to the entrance to Buenaventura Bay. The problem is that some residents of Buenaventura dump their refuse in the bay and when the winds and tides are just right, the cans, bottles and plastic float away to land on the nearest beaches. In recent years, La Bocana and the associated tourist beaches have been kept cleaner by regular trash removal, in an effort to encourage ecotourism.

The beaches of the Pacific coast of Colombia are, for the most part, peaceful, quiet, pristine and beautiful. The quiet is usually broken by birdcalls from the jungle and countless splashing, diving pelicans in numbers far larger than we have seen elsewhere. The Colombian coast and its beaches are stunning in their beauty.

Correa Arango, I.D. and Restrepo Angel, J.D., 2002, Geologia y Oceanografia del Delta del Rio San Juan: Litoral Pacifico Colombiano. Fondo Editorial Universidad-EAFIT, Medellin, Colombia, 221p.

Martinez, J.O., Gonzalez, J.L., Pilkey, O.H. and Neal, W.J. 1995. Tropical Barrier Islands of Colombia’s Pacific Coast: Journal of Coastal Research, v 11, p 432 – 453.

Rare fossil of sea reptile found on Alaska beach

sea reptile
Thalattosaurs (meaning “ocean lizards”) are a group of prehistoric marine reptiles which lived during the mid-late Triassic Period. Some species of thalattosaur grew to over 4 meters (13 feet) in length, including a long, flattened tail used in underwater propulsion. Thalattosaur fossils have been found in California, Oregon, Nevada, and British Columbia. They are also present in Europe, with remains having been found from Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. More recently, thalattosaur fossils have been found in China. Wikipedia ©© Ghedoghedo / Wikimedia


Alaska scientists have discovered the fossil of a rare, prehistoric marine reptile that is likely the most complete remnant of the creature ever found in North America.

The nearly complete fossilized skeleton, found during an extreme low tide along the shore of the Tongass National Forest, is of a thalattosaur, a long-tailed sea creature that plied warm, shallow waters in the early days of dinosaurs and became extinct at the end of the Triassic period some 200 million years ago…

Read Full Article, News Daily

Blue Carbon Initiative: Buried Treasure For Climate and Coastal Communities

A mangrove plantation in Bali. Photo source: ©© Lawrence Hislop /Unep

Excerpts; from UNEP, The World’s Bank and Conservation International

There is overwhelming consensus amongst climate scientists that the Earth’s warming in recent decades has been caused primarily by human activities that have increased the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that nearly 50 per cent of the emissions causing global warming in the twenty-first century are from non-CO2 pollutants ranging from black carbon entering the atmosphere from the inefficient burning of biomass and dung for cooking and from diesel engines, coal-fired power stations, low-level ozone, methane and nitrogen compounds.(unep). According to researchers, black carbon’s likely near-term climate change contribution ranges from 20 to 50 per cent of the CO2 warming effects. Especially damaging are the black carbon emissions that end up on snow and ice, as consequently these surfaces absorb more of the sun’s heat. UNEP’s focus in this area has been on the Arctic and Himalayan Tibetan Plateau.

According to a 2009 report, Mitigating climate change through restoration and management of coastal wetlands and near-shore marine ecosystems, to mitigate the most serious impacts of climate change a range of different strategies to lower carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere are required.

Instead of relying on costly technologies such as carbon capture and storage, boosting investments in the conservation, rehabilitation and management of the vast stores of carbon held by the world’s ecosystems like forests and oceans, can deliver significant cuts in carbon emissions and avoid even more being released to the atmosphere.

Such activities have the added benefit of preserving the huge range of services and goods these ecosystems provide to local people and the wider community, the report concluded.

The concept of Blue Carbon, which refers to the important role that some coastal habitats play in naturally storing greenhouse gasses, thereby helping to mitigate climate change, was introduced by UNEP in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Education and Science Organization (UNESCO).

Mr Archim Stenier, the UNEP Executive Director, said that the blue carbon was a mix of the colour blue signifying oceans and the cutting on carbon emissions and how we should cope with the issue in the foreseeable future. We will have to rely more and more on carbon capture and sequestration in our eco systems done by nature. We humans should turn nature’s natural systems into assets. What is underestimated is the power of the worlds oceans to store more carbon in marine ecosystems rather than terrestrial ones.” An added, “We already know that marine and coastal ecosystems are multi-trillion dollar assets linked to sectors such as tourism, shipping and fisheries – now it is emerging that they are natural allies against climate change.” Press Release, Unep

Dubbed “blue carbon” for their ability to sequester and store huge amounts of carbon, coastal marine ecosystems are believed to be able to complement the role of forests (Green Carbon) in taking up carbon emissions through sequestration, if valued and managed properly.

Carbon sinks along the world’s coastlines, including mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes store massive quantities of carbon both in the plants and in the sediment immediately beneath them. Carbon is buried in the sediment at rates up to 50 times higher than those observed on land, and these rates can be maintained for centuries or more. (Conservation International)

According to scientists at the first 2011 International Working Group on Coastal “Blue” Carbon event, total carbon deposits per square kilometer in these coastal systems can be up to five times the carbon stored in tropical forests, resulting from their ability to sequester carbon at rates up to 50 times those of tropical forests, and this could provide an immediate and cost-effective tool to counter the impacts of climate change.”

“What we’ve seen is that that these three main systems, mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes, are phenomenally efficient at storing carbon below ground in the sediment for centuries at a time,” said Dr. Emily Pidgeon, the Marine Climate Change Program Director for Conservation International. “So it seems natural to us that oceans should be part of the climate change solution. It’s been a bit puzzling to me as to why they haven’t so far.”

According to scientific analysis, coastal systems globally are being lost at an alarming rate, with approximately two percent removed or degraded each year, which is four times the estimates of annual tropical forest loss.

“The loss of mangroves is like a one-two punch to our planet: first, it results in the rapid emission of carbon stores that in many cases have built up over centuries and the lost opportunity of future carbon sequestration from these areas, and second, it destroys habitats that are critical for fisheries around the world,” said Pidgeon.” (IC)

“Scientific studies have shown that although mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes account for less than 1 percent of the total plant biomass on land and forests, they cycle almost the same amount of carbon as the remaining 99 percent. So the decline of these carbon-efficient ecosystems is a valid cause of concern.”

mangroves bali
The removal of large areas of mangroves for industrial purposes can significantly alter these precious coastal ecosystems. This can have a broader effect on the community, threatening vital clean water sources, tourist industries and the food supplies on which we rely. In addition to this, the root system of a mangrove forest serves to stabilize the coastline, providing protection from storm surges. Being a small archipelago made up of 17,000 islands, Indonesia is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels or intense tropical storms linked to Global Warming. ©© Lawrence Hislop /Unep

“From 1940 over 30% of Mangroves and 30% of Sea grass meadows and 20% of salt marshes have been lost in the name of development. Along with that 50% of the worlds wetlands have been lost while we humans ramp up carbon emissions. Now we have to link different ways to mitigate and adapt to focus on an urgent answer to get rid of this excess carbon both by blue and Green carbon efforts. Mr Steiner said this joint Blue Carbon Initiative will draw the world’s attention to the role of oceans in this fight.” (Unep)

“We appeal to all countries to preserve these abilities of coastal and marine ecosystems as important variables in global climate change dynamic”, said Dr. Fadel and Mr. Steiner.(unep)

On his first meeting in Paris, last march, the International Working Group on Coastal “Blue” Carbon, brought a set of key priorities and recommendations: link. The group of scientists will continue the collaborative scientific study in August.

Young mangrove plantation on coastal Bali. An important function of mangrove forest is to hold back silt water that damages coral reefs. In extreme weather conditions, mangroves provide a physical barrier, absorbing and dissipating the energy from tsunami, flood or storm winds. ©© Lawrence Hislop

The Project Blue Carbon, UNEP

Scientists Offer Warning And Plan For Protecting Earth’s Blue Carbon, By Conservation International

Blue Carbon Buried Treasure For Climate And Communities, By Conservation International

Mitigating climate change through restoration and management of coastal wetlands and near-shore marine ecosystems : challenges and opportunities, Report, The World Bank

Photo Source, GRID-UNEP

The Colors Of Carbon, UNEP

The Blue Carbon Portal

Unexpected Source of Sea Level Rise Found

nasa- ice ponds
The sea ice atop the Arctic Ocean can—as shown in this photograph from July 12, 2011—look more like swiss cheese or a bright coastal wetland. As ice melts, the liquid water collects in depressions on the surface and deepens them, forming melt ponds. These fresh water ponds are separated from the salty sea below and around it, until breaks in the ice merge the two. Caption and Photo source: NASA

Excerpts; By the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in Science Daily

During the last prolonged warm spell on Earth, the oceans were at least four meters, and possibly as much as 6.5 meters, or about 20 feet, higher than they are now. Where did all that extra water come from ? …

Read Full Article

Ponds On The Ocean, NASA

Geographic Analysis Offers New Insight Into Coral Disease Spread

Curacao’s beaches have a unique blend of Caribbean, tropical and desert landscapes. Photo source: ©© Cpt Kimo

Excerpts; University Of Florida

In the last 30 years, more than 90 percent of the reef-building coral responsible for maintaining major marine habitats and providing a natural barrier against hurricanes in the Caribbean has disappeared because of a disease of unknown origin.

Read Original Article, Science Daily

Sea Turtle Egg Poaching Legalized in Costa Rica: The Debate

Sea Turtle Egg Poaching Legalized in Costa Rica: The Debate

By Claire Le Guern

Two decades on, an unusual project to stabilize the population of Olive Ridley sea turtles in the coastal town of Ostional on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula that led the Government to legally permit an exemption to the ban on harvesting sea turtle eggs, remains controversial.

The rationale for circumventing a global conservation effort is to sustainably maintain the local population of Olive Ridley sea turtle, while concurrently providing a consistent income stream for the economically challenged local community of Ostional who may harvest the turtle eggs from the beach to sell locally.

People on both sides of this contentious issue have observed that with this project the government of Costa Rica has in essence legalized poaching. Indeed, despite the vigorous defense of what is claimed to be a well-managed and officially sanctioned harvest by needy local people, critics abound. Even after twenty years, independent turtle authorities remain far from any universal agreement as to the scientific and economical basis for this project’s mission and its impact.


Four of the world’s seven species of marine turtles nest on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, the Pacific Green (Chelonia Mydas) or “Negra,” Leatherback (Dermochelys Coriacea) or “Baula” or “Canal,” Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) or “Carey,” and the Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys Olivacea) or “Lora” or “Carpintera.” Olive ridleys get their name from the coloring of their heart-shaped shell, which starts out gray but becomes olive green once the turtles are adults. Forty-seven beaches on the Pacific coast have been identified as having turtle nesting activity.

The Olive Ridley turtles have been around a very long time, more than 100,000,000 years, are naturally very prolific and the most numerous of the seven existing species, with breeding beaches throughout the tropics, though it has, until recently, been considered “Endangered.” Indeed, past global numbers may have been as high as 10 million populations, yet the Ridley populations had declined by more than 50% from 1950’s levels. A single generation of men accomplished, prior to the subsequent laws protecting sea turtles and their eggs, what had seemed impossible: extensive fisheries and eggs harvesting in the early 20th century nearly wiping out in the blink of an eye what had taken a hundred million generations to create.

As a result of bans on fisheries and legal protection, the Olive Ridley turtle is nowadays, classified as “Vulnerable,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature And Natural Resources (IUCN), and is listed in Appendix I of The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

For 10 months of the year, usually around the third quarter of the moon, olive Ridleys swim by the hundreds of thousands to an 8 kilometers long by 200 meters wide beach, at Ostional, in an ancient reproductive rite little understood by scientists, called arribadas (literally meaning “arrivals” in Spanish).

Arribada, on Playa Ostional, Costa Rica. Photo Source: Dave Sherwood

Arribada nesting (massive turtle nesting and egg laying) is a behavior found only in the genus Lepidochelys, Olive Ridley Turtle. Uniquely among marine turtle species, which more normally nest individually, Ridleys congregate en masse at sea and then swarm the beaches like battalions. Although other turtles have been documented nesting in groups, no other turtles, marine or otherwise, have been observed nesting in such mass numbers and synchrony.

In such a strategy, simultaneous mass nesting is nature’s way of ensuring that natural predators, turkey vultures, feral dogs and raccoons, may be “overwhelmed,” having eaten all the fresh turtle eggs they want, and yet sufficient numbers of eggs are left over to produce a sustainable population of Olive Ridleys, maintaining the species.

The most important nesting beach on the Pacific coast is at Ostional, situated in the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge (Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Ostional).

At Ostional, the arribadas occur on a lunar cycle of approximately 28 days. The majority takes place around the last quarter of the cycle although this event may happen at any time including the full moon and two arribadas (first and last quarter) may occur in the same month. The size and duration of the arribadas varies between the dry and wet seasons. Those occurring in the dry season of January to April tend to be smaller (approximately 5,000 turtles) and of shorter duration (less than four days). In the wet season of May to December, up to 300,000 turtles may lay over a period of eight to 10 days. On a number of occasions between August and October, two arribadas of 10 days each, have occurred in the same month. This results in continuous activity during the month with a few days of lower activity and two peaks of maximum nesting.

Females nest every year, once or twice a season, laying clutches of approximately 100 eggs. The turtles generally ride in on the high tide at night but during an arribada they start arriving around 4 p.m. and keep coming until 7 a.m. the next morning. Used to a life in the ocean, the turtles painfully drag their heavy bodies over the beach until they get above the high tide line. There, flicking clouds of sand, they dig a hole with their flippers and drop in an average of 100 leathery, white eggs the size of ping-pong balls. Over the course of the arribada nesting, females may leave as many as 10 million eggs in the black, volcanic sand of Ostional beach.


Ostional is one of two dozen beaches in the world where the Olive Ridley’s arribadas nesting occur. Arribadas take place on a few beaches in the eastern Pacific and northern Indian oceans. In the eastern Pacific, besides Costa Rica, arribadas occur from June through December on beaches on the coasts of Mexico, Nicaragua, and on a single beach in Panama. In the northern Indian Ocean, arribadas occur on three different beaches along the coast of India. Solitary nesting occurs extensively throughout this species’ range, and has been documented in approximately 40 countries worldwide. (NOAA).

The largest arribada thus far recorded in Ostional, took place in November 1995 when a calculated 500 000 females came ashore.

Arribadas’ downside is that the oncoming and succeeding flows of turtles, arriving on a same surface in such quantity in such a small time frame, lead to excavation of each others’ previously sand buried eggs. Indeed, as many as 200,000 Ridleys may pile ashore with as many as 20,000 at a time, digging their nests at Ostional during the course of three or four nights. Many, if not most, of the nests buried on the first and second night get dug up again on subsequent nights by later arrivals, causing destruction not only to those eggs, but, due to bacterial decomposition of the broken eggs, gross contamination of the surrounding sand. As a result, arribada beaches often realize a very small (1-2%) hatch success.

Photo Source: Dave Sherwood

In the early 1980s, biologists from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) concluded that, because of limited space on Ostional beach, the succeeding waves of nesting females coming ashore during these arribadas destroyed, and/or contaminated 70-90% of the previously laid eggs. Researchers, along with the Environmental Ministry, thus concluded that there would be no harm to the species’ relative abundance along Costa Rican shores if, instead of being trampled into one big scrambled mess, Ostional community members were permitted to dig up 1% of the nests and consume/sell the eggs.

Scientists figured that by removing eggs laid during the first two nights, the rate of successful hatching and hatchling survival might increase. The researchers wondered: why not let poachers have the doomed eggs?

Thus was born an experiment unique to Ostional. Elsewhere throughout Costa Rica, taking marine turtle eggs is illegal, and has been since 1966.

“What we have done is turn people into predators,” says Dr. Anny Chavez, a sea turtle biologist and one of the founders of the Ostional project, which is world famous among turtle activists.

An exception to the international ban on turtle eggs collecting was granted and the Ostional community was legally permitted to harvest a specific amount of eggs for commercial purposes under the supervision of the Ostional Internal Development Association (ADIO in Spanish).

Ostional community, approved in 1990 by executive order N° 28203-MINAE-MAG, law N° 8325 of the Protection, Conservation, and Recovery of Sea Turtle populations enacted on November 28th, 2002 and by law N° 8436 of Fishing and Agriculture on April 25th, 2005.

The government of Costa Rica allows then, on an annual, temporary suspension of the ban on turtle-egg taking, that the people of Ostional harvest, through an egg-harvesting cooperative, the doomed eggs on the first two dawns of an arribada.

The egg harvest at Ostional is regulated and legal.

A formal co-management model between the University of Costa Rica, a community organization called ADIO, and the Ministry of Natural Resources (MINAET) in Costa Rica, was installed to regulate the program.

Every 5 years the program is reviewed and the egg harvest management plan is reviewed and updated as needed, then submitted to the Government for approval.

The current plan notes that:
a. The current density of nests is 11 nests per square meter (Olive Ridleys can only sustain about two
nests per meter without impacting hatchling emergence success).
b. During the arribadas, the females dig up the nests of previous nesting events.
c. Due to the high level of egg breakage, putrefaction rates are very high and the resulting high levels of fungus and bacteria contaminate 100% of nests, reducing emergence success. Removal of surplus eggs has help the population increasing the hatch success by 5%.
d. Eggs can only be harvested during the first 36 hours of an arribada.
f. To be declared an “arribada”, more than 80 adult females must be nesting simultaneously.

The egg harvest program employs 300 local people and the gross income from the program is about $150,000 USD. About 15% of the eggs are harvested. While there are constant concerns about the balance between maintaining the community’s desire and tradition to harvest and consume (or sell) the eggs and the need to protect this precious resource on balance, the program is viewed by some as an example of pragmatic conservation.

Ostional, black sand beach. Photo Source: Lara Napeleona

No harvesting of the late eggs is allowed. They are protected as they incubate and the hatchlings emerge to return to the sea.

The harvested eggs are then distributed and sold throughout Costa Rica at a government regulated low price, half the price of a chicken egg. Only eggs stamped with the ADIO trademark may legally be sold, packed in sealed bags displaying the association’s logo and sold with corresponding invoices, and purchased in Costa Rica.

This has been believed by some, to have had a dramatic effect on the strong black market. The strategy initially was to attempt to flood the markets with turtle eggs easily and cheaply available, letting some think that it is no longer worthwhile for people to sneak onto beaches in the middle of the night to dig up a few eggs.

In return, the Ostional egg harvest management program advocates that the community must clean debris from the beaches, patrol day and night for poachers and protect the turtles and their eggs.

Forty-five to fifty-four days after they eggs have been laid, the hatchlings emerge, depending on incubation temperatures, which will also determine if they will become male or female. As soon as the hatchlings have struggled out of the sand, the race to the ocean begins, under Ostional community’ s requested careful supervision.

With eyes barely opened, the mini turtles smell the breeze and instantly know the right direction. The small turtles need the run to develop their lungs. Most hatchlings don’t reach maturity, but those who make it will remember the smell of their beach. After 10 – 15 years they will return to their place of birth and again lay their eggs into the black sand of Ostional.

The result?

Bacteria have been allegedly reduced on Ostional beach. More eggs are maturing to hatching on this beach. More hatchlings are being born from this arribada nesting location. The population of Ridleys has increased to the point where they are now coming ashore, at more and more beaches along Costa Rica’s coast.

Despite the vigorous defense of what is claimed to be a well-managed and officially-sanctioned harvest by needy local people, independent turtle authorities are not universally in agreement as to the scientific basis for the activity and its impact, and critics abound regarding the very key-stone of this program. Controlling nature’s way by creating a legal exemption to an international ban on collecting turtle eggs, even though perfectly well intended, indubitably goes against the belief that real sustainability is best obtained by protecting nature, via well-thought legal frames indeed, but ones that ultimately should not infringe in the always efficacious by essence and natural, evolutionary patterns.

Ostional Olive Ridleys' Eggs Take and Sale

Furthermore, some argue that Ostional exception has not only seeded egg poaching as a vocation but also sprouted an ever-flourishing black market, locally and overseas. Mostly to blame is the absence of de facto regular and efficient control of the chain of custody between the harvesters up through the consumers. Derogatory status to existing law should not be allowed, specifically when the law itself cannot be enforced, which is a widely recognized problem in this matter.

As reported by Dennis Rogers writer in AM Costa Rica Newspaper (October 26th, 2010 article), the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s, (founded by Archie Carr as the Caribbean Conservation Corp.) official position on the Ostional situation is “While we don’t agree with this egg collection, the project is endorsed by the Costa Rican government for the time being,” according to Rocío Johnson, public relations coordinator.

The main objection of critics is that the existence of Ostional eggs on the market provides cover and even encouragement for poaching of the same, and other species, on non-protected beaches around the country. This species is the most abundant off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and nesting takes place along the whole length of the country on 48 of the 51 beaches identified as suitable for this activity. As a matter of fact, all other sea turtles that nest in Costa Rica are actually in a far more perilous state than the Olive Ridley.

On the Costa Rican beaches where solitary nesting takes place, it is estimated that human egg poaching results in the destruction of between 80 and 100 percent of the nests, depending on the accessibility of the beach. The Nosara beach for instance, located to the south of Ostional, is occasionally used during the large arribadas by the same nesters of Ostional. The nesting population, where solitary nesting is concerned, has been estimated at between 4,500 and 5,000 individuals.

After nesting, the turtles migrate to deeper waters while staying relatively close to the coast and spending a large proportion of the time on the surface. Following the primary dietary source of shrimp, coastal migration takes place between Mexico and Chile. However, there does appear to be a resident population along the Costa Rican coast.

Furthermore, until a few years ago, arribadas nesting were known to occur only at Playa Nancite, off-limits to visitors, and Playa Ostional, in Nicoya. The scarcity of available space on Ostional beach was the main scientific reason as to install a legalized harvesting of eggs for a limited time on a limited space, this because of the occurrence of arribadas deemed too large for the “small” beach. This was the keystone of the Ostional project. Ostional is 8 kilometers long, 200 meters wide beach. One might argue that eight kilometers is quite a long stretch of sand… But more importantly in the debate, recently Olive Ridleys’ arribadas have occurred at other Costa Rican beaches, such as Playa Guiones (Nosara) and Playa Camaronal, further south, and needless to emphasize that they are obviously not regulated and protected as Ostional is.

Photo Source: Dave Sherwood

What is often described as an ancient arribada ritual occurring at Ostional actually has been recorded only since 1959 when the first noticed large-scale arrival of Olive Ridley turtles occurred. Similar phenomena were known in Mexico and elsewhere before that. The Costa Rica events at Ostional and the smaller Nancite beach in Guanacaste did not even come to the attention of the scientific community until 1970. This is very little time to monitor populations of a long-lived species.

Supporters of Ostional’s arribadas’ outcome experimental project, say that the eggs destroyed by late-arriving turtles rot and promote pathogens that will damage the incubating eggs and their contents. These claims are currently under scientific investigation. Independent biologists have formed the Costa Rican National Sea Turtle Conservation Network to look at this question.

All turtles are still principally threatened by incidental capture in shrimp nets, on the long-lines off the coast and the illegal poaching of the eggs. Along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, turtle meat has traditionally been used as an ingredient in traditional dishes and turtle shells are often carved into jewelry. Turtle meat and eggs are a delicacy and a way of life in many countries, including Costa Rica evidently.

Sea Turtle Entangled
Titled “Underwater Sadness,” a photograph of a caretta sea turtle caught in a net in the Sea of Cortés. Photo Source: Ramón Domínguez

Costa Rica outlawed the taking of turtle eggs nationwide in 1966. The Law for the Protection, Conservation and Recuperation of the Marine Turtle Population (Law 8325), established in 2002 and designed to help protect declining sea turtle numbers, mandates three years of prison for anyone who “kills, hunts, captures, decapitates, or disturbs marine turtles.” The same law also imposes three months to two years of jail time for “those who detain marine turtles with the intention of marketing or commercializing products made from marine turtles.”

Nowadays, despite the legal interdictions, hundreds of locals do consistently gather at remote Costa Rican beaches, with no enforcement forces there…nobody to patrol the miles-long stretch of sandy beaches.

According to Sea Turtle Restoration, poaching on any Central American turtle beaches, and perhaps the world, is close to 100%. Even the protected areas like Ostional, poaching in the Guanacaste region is estimated at 95%.

As recall “Chevy,” a Costa Rican man interviewed in an article published in the Tico Times Directory (Costa Rica Poaching of Costa Rica Sea Turtles Eggs- Turtle Poll ):

” In the late 1960s, during the incredible arribadas massive pack trains of horses and donkeys carried away hundreds of millions of eggs collected by the hueveros (egg poachers), and at each nesting season. “Chevy” recalls that many Costa Ricans, leaving on the coast, remember the time when they were young, being sent to the beach by their parents, with sisters and brothers, to get sea turtle eggs. They would come back with baskets filled, within fifteen to thirty minutes. When money was needed, they would fill up a bunch more of baskets and sell them to local markets, restaurants and street vendors. “Back in those days one dollar was worth around 6-7 colons. Dozen eggs would be sold between 3 to four colones.

Nobody thought about conservation back then, but since the mid 1970s times have changed for the sea turtle. With worldwide eco-protection and tight legal frames, the demand for turtle and its eggs has increased, to some say, “epidemic poaching!”

Turtle meat, deemed to be ” an awesome tasting seafood” and eggs are indubitably, not only a delicacy, but also a way of life. Poaching of nests nation wide, has been a constant problem due to a traditional demand and taste for eggs for baking and as supposedly aphrodisiacal drinks in bars and brothels. The eggs are richer tasting than chicken eggs and packed in protein. Today, turtle eggs are found in local bars, restaurants and markets that are off the beaten path, far from most tourist areas. And during the nesting season, roadside stands offer them by the bucket full for $2 per egg.

Sea Turtle Eggs for Sale

As reported in The New York Times: “In a country where turtle eggs are traditionally slurped in bars from a shot glass, uncooked and mixed with salsa and lemon, biologists are also promoting cultural change. “Of course 25 years ago, you went out with your friends or family and dug up the eggs,” said Héctor García, 42. “It is a tradition. They are delicious, cooked or raw.” Today egg collecting is illegal in Costa Rica, but poaching is still common in many towns.”

“It is common street talk that turtle sanctuaries have made deals with commercial poachers who sell to traffickers. They give them X amount of eggs; in return the poachers will not steal or just plain old fashion bribery and extortion. Egg collecting and selling is illegal unless you have a permit; to get around this, these sanctuaries give the poachers a receipt, so in fact they can “legally” resell those eggs to “whomever” they please.” (Excerpt from the Tico Times Directory). Further reporting:

“When I asked Chevy about the law, he laughed, “¿Qué ley” (What law?) and explained, a few weeks ago a few of his friends were caught with a few thousand turtle eggs. His friends ended up splitting the shipment with the two officers.”

Today, there is nothing wrong de facto, with having a few turtle eggs in your possession, and normally if caught with a bunch, your fine is to share those eggs with the policeman.

There is no real regulatory enforcement and/or authority to competently oversee the number of eggs sold and collected due to lack of funds, resources, and manpower. The legal sale of any turtle eggs in the country has opened the door for the clandestine eggs harvesting from other beaches, undoubtedly. The Ostional exception has seeded egg poaching as a vocation and sprouted a flourishing black market, locally and overseas.

The local black market supposedly ” flooded” by cheaper prices, has not stopped nor hindered the demand, which not only remains strong, but the tradition and taste for the eggs is somewhat perpetrated, if not intensified or encouraged, by timely offering legal turtle eggs, at cheaper price.

This program has reportedly greatly increased the population of the Olive Ridley turtle at the site. Greater population, means more eggs available, and as we mentioned earlier, arribadas are not only seen on protected Ostional beach anymore, but witnessed elsewhere, as well as solitary nesting’s, present and striving all along the Costa Rican coast. So many turtle eggs, so easily located, so much money to be made.

The demand for black-marketed turtle eggs has inflated local sales by 500% (according to the Costa Rican Conservation network).

To the program’s defense, it has been argued that Costa Rica’s law providing the Ostional exception is mainly geared toward the locals because of cultural habits and economic disarray. The egg take was intended to provide a fledgling coastal community with a regulated source of income and food. Generation after generation has used simple turtle eggs to feed their families, directly or by the commercialization of the eggs. The exception to the law was put in place as a way to sustainably manage the area’s nesting turtle population; however, with no way to enforce that only Ostional eggs are commercialized, Costa Rica has opened the door to “a kind of sea turtle egg consumption pandemonium.” (AM Costa Rica News).

The question indeed arises: practically are the eggs going exclusively to the local economy as first intended, or to the oversea ones?

With the increase of worldwide conservation, it has been noticed that the largest demand for turtle eggs is for their supposed aphrodisiac effects, just like rhinoceros’ horns or shark fins. The largest market is in the Asian countries. In regards to the black market specifically, it appeared that the problem is not mainly Costa Rica’s culture and tradition, but extends to meet the greed of the Asian market for that matter. The demand for turtle eggs is reported to range between $100-$300 USD per egg. It is easy to see how the local smugglers have added turtle eggs to their list. The market can be profitable as drug smuggling, but nowhere close to the high risk. Due to lack of funds, resources, and manpower, literally millions of eggs find their way overseas.

Turtle Eggs for Sale, 30e San Jose, Avenida Central, Paseo Colon, Costa Rica. Captions and Photo source: ©© Kansas Sebastian

As the Tico Times Directory reporter, asked “Chevy”:

“How widespread is the overseas poaching?” He smiled back, “It’s like a strong wind, you can’t see it, but you can sure as hell feel and see the effects of it.”

Locally, with no transparency in the turtle egg business, the legal loophole opens the floodgates for almost anyone to claim their eggs are from Ostional, thus leading to the rampant poaching of all types of sea turtle eggs on both coasts.

“Who’s goin’ to question, “What beach do the turtle eggs come from? And “If the eggs were legally or illegally harvested?”

Nobody knows how many bags of eggs have found their way to the black market, locally and overseas. In other words, a lot of bags are stamped to resemble the Ostional stamp of approval, but no one checks to see if it is the stamp is real or just a forgery.

As reported by Dennis Rogers, AM Costa Rica News, internal conflicts and discrepancies exist within the program and organization. The Ostional Development Association’s 2008 report for instance, allegedly gives detailed accounting of the number of eggs harvested that year on Ostional beach, and the various uses by the community of the money remaining after the membership’s 70 percent share is doled out. Yet, conspicuously absent, is any discussion of the actual number of turtles that came that year. Accurate monitoring of the eight kilometers of nesting beach would require carefully designed techniques during a large wave of turtles, many of which lay at night. It is not happening.

The right to harvest turtle eggs is restricted to the 260 members of the association, registered as a cooperative. Membership is not automatic and different numbers of individuals in the same families are included. This results in some households getting a larger share than others, and this apparently is a cause of friction.

Furthermore, Ostional has been engulfed in nasty, small-town feud between the egg-harvesting cooperative and the resident biologists, over the misuse, respectively, of turtle-egg income and scientific spoils (reports John Burnett, NPR). The conflict broke out when the husband-and-wife team, biologist Anny Chavez and Leslie du Toit, a South African sea turtle enthusiast, began building a small hotel at the research station on the edge of town where they live. The couple wants to begin charging students and researchers for lodging and lab space. The community is angry that the two are starting a business on public land; other Costa Rican biologists have also questioned the ethics of the enterprise. Cooperative directors allegedly receive kickbacks from egg retailers and pocket the additional profits. “They’re a mafia; We found out what was happening and told the authorities. Our complaints alienated us.” For their part, the egg harvesters clearly do not like the couple watching over their shoulder.” say locals. Anny Chavez, who helped found the egg-harvest plan, wonders, in retrospect, whether the conflicts could have been avoided.

The experiment’s designers were biologists who apparently thought they understood turtles better than they understood people. “When we started the project, we were worried about the biological basis. We didn’t work hard to try and train the community about how to manage this big amount of money. And for me, this is part of our fault,” she says.

Sea Turtle Eggs Costa Rica

Confronted to a cultural and economical dilemma, when attempting to install a satisfying system to save turtles and their eggs while taking in consideration needs from a coastal population economically challenged, finding a sustainable and efficient path to resolve the conflict is a difficult task.

Aware of the cultural tradition of poaching, Mark Ward, founder of Sea Turtles for Ever (STF), an Oregon based non-profit whose sea turtle conservation work includes actively patrolling the Punta Pargos nesting beaches on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, offers hueveros cold cash to not dig up turtle nests. And if the hatchlings successfully emerge from their eggs at the end of their 45-day gestation period, the poachers get paid for their work. This has been called the bonus program.

Sea turtle conservationists have been quick to criticize the bonus program. Ward’s strategy has been called unsustainable because if the money runs out, the hueveros will return to stealing eggs.

To comprehend the situation Ward is dealing with in Punta Pargos, it’s important to first be aware of the socio-economic woes that plague rural, coastal villages in Costa Rica in general. Local coastal communities made up of artisanal fishermen; often struggle to feed their children and grandchildren because of the overexploitation of fisheries stocks. Ward believes that the real stewards of this country’s marine fauna, should be the Costa Rican men, women, and children who live out their days on these beaches. But after nightfall, the beaches around Punta Pargos can be a rough place as poachers are a common site, walking the sands in search of turtle tracks…

Photo Source: Dave Sherwood

The extent that arribadas contribute to the population status of Olive Ridleys, creates debate among scientists, locals and sea turtle conservationists. Many believe that the massive reproductive output of these nesting events is critical to maintaining populations, while others maintain that traditional arribada beaches fall far short of their reproductive potential and are most likely not sustaining population level. While biologists have not demonstrably proven that the egg harvesting improves hatchling success, it has been shown that the Ostional nesting turtle population is stable or growing at the site, and other beaches along the coast. Is that a direct result of this program, or of a larger consensus and agreement on bans on turtle fishing and egg collecting worldwide?

Ostional state of affair shows that in an attempt to successfully protect the environment and or a species, derogatory status and gross exemptions to internationally accepted concepts and laws, might obviously not be the most appropriate answer. Furthermore, the status of legal exception unintentionally emphasizes and aggravates a pre-existing problem, on an environmental, economical and human points levels. A global approach and view on the subject appears a lot more appropriate. In this very case, forbidding sea turtles eggs harvesting once and for all, internationally, with no derogatory status. Isolationism is not a sustainable answer to global conservation.

Even though the natural arribada scenario, which is the very keystone of the Ostional legal egg harvesting exception, may seem “maladapted” at first, arribada beaches often realize a small hatch success in proportion, yet the Olive Ridley is the most numerous sea turtle species in the world. This in itself clearly reflects a successful, natural evolutionary strategy within the species!

Ridley turtles’ arribadas nesting do occur on many other beaches throughout the world and, for that matter, none other countries have regulated the Nature’s way…

Sea Turtle Hatchling

References and Sources

The mission of the Santa Aguila Foundation is to raise awareness of and mobilize people against the ongoing decimation of coastlines around the world.

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