An e-mail condemning a legal turtle egg harvest in Guanacaste is now circulating in at least English, Spanish, German, French, and Portuguese.
Tourism agencies and guides report spending considerable time and effort defending Costa Rica’s reputation from what some describe as a malicious assault.
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.
What is often described as an ancient ritual actually dates only to 1959 when the first large-scale arrival of olive ridley turtles occurred at Ostional. Similar phenomena were known in Mexico and elsewhere before that, though the Mexican turtle populations were wiped out in the early 20th century by wholesale exploitation for meat and skins. 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.
The main objection of critics is that the existence of Ostional eggs on the market provides cover for poaching of other species on other beaches around the country. All other sea turtles that nest in Costa Rica are in a far more perilous state than the olive ridley.
Supporters 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 under scientific investigation. Independent biologists have formed the Costa Rican National Sea Turtle Conservation Network to look at this question.
The Sea Turtle Conservancy is partnering with local biologists for this research. This organization, originally founded by Archie Carr as the Caribbean Conservation Corp., has traditionally been the leader of sea turtle research at Tortuguero. The official position of the Conservancy on the Ostional situation is “(w)hile 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 Ostional Development Association’s 2008 report gives detailed accounting of the number of eggs harvested and the various uses by the community of the money remaining after the membership’s 70 percent share is doled out.
Conspicuously absent is any discussion of the number of turtles that came that year. Accurate monitoring of the seven kilometers of nesting beach would require carefully designed techniques during a large wave of turtles, many of whom lay at night.
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.
Another benefit of cooperative membership is the opportunity to be a guide for tourists. The cooperative in its own information sheet mentions prices, while complaining that a small group of guides associated with the environmental ministry office also offer guiding services. This is described as another source of friction with the government, which allegedly takes advantage of the local efforts “without contributing anything to the community.”
This friction is similar to a situation at Parque Nacional Carara near Jacó where a cooperative of local guides attempted to monopolize the park and used the park’s own headquarters as their base. They even attempted to illegally enforce rules on visitors. That blatant attempt to usurp public property for private gain was eventually quashed. In this case it was the local cooperative that took over the ministry’s facilities, while in Ostional apparently a group considered to be outsiders has set up camp.
The Ostional cooperative’s guides are also responsible for beach cleanups. The groups do regular cleanups of beach trash and driftwood that might interfere with nesting or the escape of hatchling turtles to the sea. Vegetation encroaching on the beach itself is cut back.
Some sources have suggested the photos in the hoax e-mail originated with a September 2009 article in the newspaper Al Día, which focused entirely on the people involved and not at all on the turtles. None of the photos in the two sets is identical, but several individual men carrying bags of eggs appear to be the same.