So why exactly is this researcher studying marine turtle nesting behavior? Well because, coastal dunes in México are not currently afforded protection and marine turtles along the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur depend on certain habitat conditions on the beaches that the dunes provide. Coastal dunes are under threat from ATV tours and increasing coastal development. If we destroy our coastal dunes, there is no sand reservoir to replenish the beaches after a storm. As sea levels continue to rise, the beaches are shrinking and thus we are losing wildlife habitat and biodiversity. The combination will provoke beach erosion and thus completely erase the nesting beaches important not only sea turtles but also reduce coastal bird nesting habitat, endemic plant populations, and reduce water quality and food sources for migrating gray whales.
While we have to accommodate the rapid human population growth, building on a moving, giant sand mound (a.k.a Coastal Dune) is never a good idea. Have you ever spent hours making a sand castle and then in 2 seconds a wave took it away? Imagine that scenario on a larger scale if there was no protective barrier from the wave, and that is what happens when we destroy the coastal dunes and the summer storms arrive. Coastal dunes provide protection against hurricanes, restore beaches after heavy storms at high tides, and the sand is constantly shifting.
In Mexico, the federal government enforces a 20 meter protected zone (ZOFEMAT) along the coastline. However, in the case of nesting coastal birds and marine turtles, this is not sufficient as the majority of nesting occurs, on average 30 – 40 meters from the mean high tide line. As the law allows for development to encroach up to the protection zone, beaches are lost to sea and birds and sea turtles have to look elsewhere for nesting grounds. We in turn lose tourism opportunities because of the eroded beaches and loss of coastal access and biodiversity. Just like in California and Florida, houses here too will eventually fall into the ocean because of the instability of building on coastal dunes and beaches.
A project entitled ProFaunaBaja has been initiated at Playa San Cristobal thanks to a pilot program by Ecology Project International (EPI). Stephanie Rousso, the principal wildlife biologist for the project proposed a pilot program to EPI. In return, EPI received generous funding to implement 6 environmental education trips for local students during sea turtle nesting season. For each trip, EPI brings 12-14 high school and middle school students from La Paz to camp for 2 nights. The students learn about sea turtles, coastal dune and beach ecology, and coastal habitat conservation. Thanks to the EPI pilot program, Proyecto ProFaunaBaja is now collecting valuable baseline data about the sea turtle habitat and biodiversity in the coastal dunes. The project examines how the beach morphology changes between seasons and determine if the federal zone should be expanded to protect nesting habitat and guard against sea level rise due to effects from climate change. EPI and ProfaunaBaja will be presenting at the next GrupoTortuguero annual symposium in January and possibly at the international sea turtle symposium in the U.S. next fall. They continue to seek grants and other sources of funding to continue environmental education and purchase the appropriate field equipment.
Residents and visitors in the area can also participate in night patrols, enjoy a bonfire and dinner, then camp on the beach, and in the morning release baby hatchlings. We can provide tents, ground transportation from La Paz or Cabo San Lucas to Playa San Cristobal, meals, and of course turtles! For more information on these exciting “voluntourism” trips to the marine turtle camp at Playa San Cristobal, email or call Stephanie. At the camp, there is an area for presentations, clean and sanitary bathrooms, a full kitchen, and solar panels for limited electricity use.
Check out the webpage www.ProFaunaBaja.org, e-mail Stephanie at Stephanie@ProFaunaBaja.org or call 612 150 6667.