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Protecting El Salvador’s Largest Wetland From the Bottom Up

Conservation Trust grantee Brad Nahill, co-founder of SEE Turtles, is working to protect endangered sea turtles by growing the market for conservation travel to support small conservation programs around the world. SEE Turtles also connects volunteers to conservation projects and educates students both in the US and near key turtle nesting sites around Latin America.

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Four imposing volcanoes watched over us as we ate dinner on a covered dock which doubles as a dining area in the town of La Pirraya on an island in Jiquilisco Bay, El Salvador’s largest wetland. Our tour group sat admiring the sunset and the returning fishing boats with the day’s catch. Bolts of lighting streaked across the sky after dinner providing a dramatic counterpoint to the soft waves slapping against the wooden posts of the dock.

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Fishermen preparing their nets in the town of La Pirraya in Jiquilisco Bay, El Savlador. Photo by Brad Nahill.

Jiquilisco Bay is idyllic in many ways. This bay, which includes mangroves, seagrass beds, and several islands is not only a place of great natural beauty; it’s a working landscape, providing sustenance and income for thousands of local residents. Industries that reap from the bay and its forests include fishing, transportation, firewood collection, and tourism. Managing the natural resources and ensuring that there is enough for everyone is a complicated job- too big for any single government agency or community organization.

During a recent week-long tour I led for SEE Turtles to explore El Salvador’s culture and nature, our group saw first hand how community development and wildlife groups are helping manage Jiquilisco Bay, conserving its wild animals, and reducing the negative environmental impact that fishing can have. We learned about threats to the bay’s ecosystem and visited local projects to ensure that the riches of the bay can sustain its human and wild inhabitants.

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Photo by Brad Nahill.

One morning, our group boarded two “pangas” (fiberglass boats) and headed out to explore the mangroves that are critical to the health of the bay by providing habitat for birds and wildlife and a place for fish to reproduce. After years of degradation from fishing, agricultural pollution, and aquaculture projects, the mangrove is now growing again due to restoration efforts.

The main focus of our visit was to see and learn about sea turtles, of which 4 species live in and around this area, the hawksbill, green, leatherback, and olive ridley. After our boat ride, we visited a sea turtle hatchery where eggs of olive ridley turtles are protected by Asociacion Mangle (a local community-based development group). Unfortunately while hearing about this inspiring program, we received some bad news.

Chema, our genial guide who works with our host organization EcoViva, shared the news with me. He got a call from a fishermen who spotted a dead hawksbill turtle in the mangrove wetlands. A small group of us headed out by boat to retrieve the turtle and take it with us to hand it off to the staff of the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (known by its acronym ICAPO), a conservation organization that is a partner of SEE Turtles.

Though the turtle was too decomposed to determine the cause of death, our partners were pretty sure the culprit was blast fishing (the biggest threat to the hawksbills in the bay) where a combination of household chemicals are combined into a homemade bomb that kills everything in its wake. More than 20 hawksbills have died from blast fishing in the past five years (out of less than 500 adult female hawksbills estimated to live in the entire region).

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Hawksbill turtle in Jiquilisco Bay. Photo by Brad Nahill.

One of the primary areas of focus for Asociacion Mangle and EcoViva is promoting “pesca limpia” (“clean fishing” in English) which helps to reduce the number of animals that are accidentally caught. This program helps set up artificial reefs for fishermen that are managed to ensure a more sustainable supply of fish. Many former blast fishermen now participate in this program, which has helped to reduce the impact of explosives on certain areas of the bay.

Fishing is just one of the threats to sea turtles in this area. ICAPO, EcoViva, and Asociacion Mangle also work to protect sea turtle nests by purchasing the eggs from local residents who formerly sold the eggs for consumption. Since consuming eggs (and other turtle products) was banned in 2009, a network of hatcheries across the country has grown to receive the eggs, where they are protected until hatching until being released to the ocean. More than 1 million hatchlings have been released to the ocean to date in the country since the ban and our Billion Baby Turtles program has helped to save more than 30,000 hatchlings the past two years.

We visited one of these beaches at sunrise one morning in the town of La Pirraya. A knock came early on our door, alerting us that a hawksbill had been found by one of the local tortugueros (egg collectors). We quickly dressed and hopped in the boat to head to other side of the bay. With the orange sunrise behind the volcanoes providing the entertainment, we arrived at the beach as the research team collected tissue samples and basic info such as length and width of the turtle’s shell. The researchers sent the female hawksbill on its way with shiny new tags on its front flippers.

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Black turtle ready to be released back to the water. Photo by Brad Nahill.

Our main course of turtle watching came later that day as we looked for black turtles (a sub-species of green turtle) that forage on the bay’s seagrass. Heading to a calm area near the peninsula that encloses most of the bay, our group fell quiet as we looked for the small reptilian heads popping out of the water to take a breath.

It wasn’t long before the first turtle was spotted and ICAPO’s field staff sprung into action, encircling the turtle with a large fishing net so the research team could bring it into the boat. Once the turtle was enclosed, we motored the boat around the edge of the net until we found the big male. Neftali, the cheerful local coordinator for ICAPO hopped in the water and I followed, helping free the turtle from the net and passing it to our colleagues waiting in the boat.

These black turtles are a bit of a mystery here in Jiquilisco; few nest locally and researchers don’t yet know how many forage here. Though most of they find are untagged juveniles and adults, once a turtle was found with tags from the Galapagos, so ICAPO staff suspect they migrate from the Ecuadorean islands here to feed and grow. The male we found was the first of several we would spot that day. Several of our group had the opportunity to help collect the data and release the turtles back into the water, a highlight of the trip for several people.

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Black turtle being measured as part of a research program. The towel helps keep the turtle calm while out of the water. Photo by Brad Nahill.

The following day, as our group took its final boat ride across Jiquilisco Bay to the port town of Puerto Parada, we enjoyed in the tranquil views and the calm that comes after unplugging for several days. At more than 150,000 acres, the bay seems immense but with tens of thousands of people using it every day and depending on it for survival, grassroots efforts to protect its resources are more important than ever.

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