Issue of April, 21, 2003
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A Black Week for Sea Turtles
By Pilar Franco

The culinary traditions of Holy Week in predominantly Catholic Mexico are a threat to the survival of this millennia-old species.

MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica).- Consumption of sea turtle meat and eggs reaches alarming levels during the Catholic Church calendar's Lenten season observed by the faithful in Mexico, who are adherents to questionable culinary traditions, say environmentalists.

The number of turtles killed each year to supply the black market in Mexico and the United States reaches 35,000, poet Homero Aridjis, president of the environmental International Group of 100, told Tierramérica.

Sea turtles are categorized in two families: Cheloniidae and Dermochelyidae, and six genus: Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), black (Chelonia agassizi), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), green (Chelonia mydas) and loggerhead (Caretta caretta).

Until 1960, sea turtle exploitation in Mexico, one of the world's richest countries in terms of biodiversity, was limited to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean areas.

But the rise in demand for the turtle's meat and eggs, and the production of luxury items made from its leather, shell and oil, contributed to pushing the species into the endangered category.

The over-exploitation, especially of reproductive adults, the collection of eggs in nesting areas, the loss or degradation of critical habitat, and certain fishing practices are other major threats to the sea turtle's survival.

For the second consecutive year, the Group of 100 and the U.S.-based Sea Turtle Conservation Network of the Californias carried out a campaign that included an appeal to Pope John Paul II to urge the Catholic faithful, in Mexico and elsewhere, not to eat turtle meat during Holy Week.

Consumption of turtle meat reaches its peak during Lent, which is why "we appeal to the ecological conscience of the Vatican, because the Church hierarchy could contribute a great deal towards disseminating the notion of respect for animal life," said Aridjis.

"If the Vatican would officially clarify to the Catholics who observe the period of abstinence (from consumption of beef, pork, poultry or lamb) that turtle is not fish, it would help protect an endangered species, one of extraordinary biological value," the poet-environmentalist explained.

The campaign included announcements and public events in Mexico and in the U.S. states of Texas and California, where the communities of Mexican origin have taken their traditions -- including turtle meat, through smuggling, says Aridjis.

The United States banned sea turtle hunting in 1973, and in Mexico a total ban on the capture and sales of these animals or their byproducts went into effect in 1990. But consumption of turtle meat and trade in its shell and leather continue, said the activist.

Mexico is famous for its varied and sophisticated cuisine. The states of Jalisco, Campeche, Michoacán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Baja California and Chiapas -- each with its own culinary personality -- include among their typical dishes turtle soup and other preparations of turtle meat.

Biologist Jorge Téllez López, of the University of Guadalajara, says the established turtle nesting areas in Mexico are vital for the survival of the species and must be protected, as should the sea turtle migration routes along the Pacific, Atlantic and Caribbean coasts.

Conservation groups, scientific and education institutions are working in the field, taking the direct approach to protecting the sea turtle.

Téllez López explained that temporary security fences are set up around nesting areas. Unearthed eggs are reburied and incubated under strict controls until the turtles hatch.

* Pilar Franco is a Tierramérica correspondent.

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