Sustainable Harvest of Sea Turtle Eggs at Ostional National Wildlife Refuge
Millions of turtle eggs are legally collected and sold by the residents of the community of Ostional every nesting season under the supervision of the rangers and biologists at the refuge.
There are both good and bad aspects to legally harvesting sea turtle eggs and we believe the good far outweigh the bad. Before shooting off an angry e-mail about “baby turtle massacres” please take the time to read the entire article and if righteous indignation still reigns by all means vent.
Conservation, Opportunism or Both?
Tens of thousands of turtles come ashore on this small stretch of beach to nest and out of the millions of eggs laid far less than one in a thousand would result in a turtle hatchling making it to the ocean even if no human ever came anywhere near the beach.
Natural predators like coyotes and vultures dig up many but even more are destroyed when subsequent waves of turtles come in on following nights.
Surprisingly destruction, predation and even mass collecting by humans are only a tiny impact on the overall success rate. 85% of the nests that survive intact for the full incubation period never develop and hatch baby turtles. No one knows why.
Scientists carefully monitor collecting part of the excess (there are still plenty for the coyotes and vultures). The eggs are inventoried and certified for legal sale providing income for the locals and for future conservation efforts.
The locals are strongly motivated to protect the area, the adults, the nests, and even the hatchlings as they make their run to the Pacific.
This has all but eliminated the local black market for eggs in this region, reduced questionable fishing practices by international fleets (due to conservation pressure funded with the profits) and improved the quality of the beach by eliminating sewage, runoff, ATVs etc.
It’s reasonable to estimate that since the introduction of the legal harvest more baby turtles reach the ocean each season than did a thousand years ago before humans started interfering.
The turtle eggs available for consumption from Ostional are collected legally and under the guidance of wildlife biologists (they haul them out by the hundreds of thousands). The income from the sales helps with Turtle conservation projects and the number of hatchlings is up.
Think of it like cherries. Each year people can harvest a thousand cherries from each tree but also plant half a dozen cherries. After a few years you have way more cherry trees than you started with, can harvest even more and plant even more.
You can also use the income from the cherries to protect the trees from people who might want to cut them down to use the wood for furniture or build condos where the trees are growing…
There is a potential downside to this story. It’s been suggested that the existence of legal turtle eggs on the market provides cover for illegal turtle eggs to be sold at bars and restaurants. This may be true to some degree, but we all know that billions of dollars worth of contraband and illegal substances are sold every year around the world whether there’s “legitimate cover” or not.
Income from the legally harvested eggs is used to prevent illegal poaching and I believe that poaching would increase not decrease if you eliminated the legal market.
We’ve received e-mails from people who try to equate this story with elephants in Africa where all ivory ownership, export and trade is illegal. The idea is that if the economic value of the tusks can be eliminated by confiscating and destroying any that aren’t attached to elephants then maybe poachers will stop killing the elephants for ivory. Using ivory income to try to improve conservation would never work.
Fortunately egg harvesting is completely different from the ivory situation. Using the income to fight poaching elsewhere and promote turtle conservation locally and worldwide works well.
If people were collecting turtle shells it would be a different story, but it’s not. It’s a great story of how people and wildlife can coexist and even thrive together.