Unlike other species of sea turtles that emerge individually to lay their eggs, the olive ridley sea turtle comes ashore to nest en masse. While this recent phenomenon occurs at only a few beaches worldwide, research has stated that arribadas (arrival by sea) in Ostional may not have occurred until 1961. The sheer number of turtles all nesting in these spatially limited beaches results in moderately higher levels of density-dependent mortality of eggs. In fact, many nests are excavated and replaced by the following waves of turtles because of the limited sand space. However, many believe that this recent phenomenon actually started as a reproductive strategy due to predatory saturation. An unexpected large group that nests and then quickly recedes to the sea may saturate the scattered predators (including humankind) with a very ephemeral abundance of food, ensuring that the surplus hatches safely. Although successful, according to sea turtle specialist Peter Pritchard, the arribada has one significant draw back: it needs a switch-off mechanism-s omething nature is unable to provide. Therefore, he theorizes that an arribada will eventually die, and some solitary nester will become the mother of a recrudescent arribada elsewhere. In many cases, this process can be expedited by the human footprint: lights, over-development, and over-fishing can all result in a depleted sea turtle population for a particular beach (there is evidence of this at Tamarindo, just north of Ostional).
To fully understand the economic, political, social, and cultural implications of olive ridley use, researchers have examined the context of conservation programs under the following definition, "the management of human use of organisms or ecosystems to ensure such use is sustainable" (IUCN, 1980). On arribada nesting beaches, high nesting densities and subsequent high levels of egg loss can justify egg collections: if they are not harvested they will likely be destroyed by later nesters. While the scientific community continues to debate these conservation projects, calling for more research (particularly the legal projects), the real threat seems to be the illegal use of turtles. The following is a comparison of two such projects, one legal and the other illegal:
In Oaxaca, one of the last remaining arribada beaches in Mexico, raids by protection agencies have seized up to 8000kg of turtle meat, 1800 units of turtle leather, a few hundred dead or living whole turtles, and 600,000 turtles eggs (sample data taken between years 1995 and 1998). As the large-scale slaughterhouse slowly dwindled until a complete ban of turtle fisheries formed in 1990, surviving fishermen turned to the illegal use that many believe to still be present to this day. Lisa Campbell writes that turtle fishing and egg collecting continue in Oaxaca because economic incentives are too high and alternatives never materialized. There was one particular failed attempt of diversification (through ecotourism) by the World Bank in 1990 when they funded "campsite" programs at arribada beaches to provide the same basic services of a national park. They were supposed to be self-sufficient within 7 years, but none of the campsites would reach that goal. Meanwhile, egg collectors said they would harvest only for household consumption if viable alternatives existed. The people of Oaxaca also faced challenges with the legality of their harvest. Because the harvest was illegal, it was difficult for collectors to organize and demand better prices and treatment from the middlemen who shared the largest portion of the profits. An anonymous source told me that he fears a similar level of corruption in Ostional despite the legality of the project: how much of the profit are the locals really seeing? The third issue Oaxaca faces, that is often exemplary of arribada harvesting, is that overall management has been centralized, and existing social and cultural institutions have been ignored throughout the decision making process. While harvesting remains illegal in Mexico, turtle eggs continue to be an important source of food for coastal and indigenous peoples.
Ostional's objective for the harvest is to saturate the national market for eggs, keeping the price of eggs low to discourage illegal collection from other beaches. While numerous governing agencies have responsibilities to the refuge, their involvement is often minimal and the majority of harvest needs are met by ADIO (Asociacion de Desarrollo Integral de Ostional), the local leadership group. Similarly a majority of residents recognize the harvest (70 percent) as integral to their socioeconomic sustainability. However, because the harvest only happens a few days a month (at most), there is recognition of the need to diversify the economy and reduce dependence. Although most members of the community support the harvest as sustainable because of the indirect benefits, former director of marine turtle research at the University of Costa Rica has launched several legal challenges. Petitions have challenged anything from the definition of the dry season to the commercialization of an endangered specimen. While tourism provides much of the income for the other 30 percent of the community who do not rely on the actual harvesting of eggs, there is a widespread fear of resulting overdevelopment, foreign investment, and the general negative impact tourism can have on the nesting turtles. Another issue is that there are few English speaking guides and many access points to the beach, making it difficult to monitor as a national park with so few residents. While Ostional remains a contentious issue amongst marine biologists, it is important to remember the many sea turtle beaches throughout the world that are entirely exploited for profit at the turtles expense. Hopefully, this documentary will bring light to the sea turtle experience world-wide and the issues that occur at beaches left completely unguarded or ignored by authority groups.
The previous information were excerpts from Pamela Plotkin's Biology and Conservation of Ridley Sea Turtles, particularly the report from Lisa Campbell entitled Understanding Human Use of Olive Ridleys. There are also a few short samples of data from the interviews conducted during the filmmaking process in Ostional, Costa Rica.
The following link illustrates a guerilla emailing campaign to stop the people of Ostional from harvesting sea turtle eggs. There have been many attempts to stop the Ostional harvest, including petitions delivered to the Costa Rican government, protests at local markets, and emails like this one, which was circulated worldwide. This particular email campaign used a variety of countries as emotional platforms with captions stating that the harvest of sea turtle eggs was happening at locations in their countries (despite the use of the same pictures of the Ostional harvest throughout the campaign).