TEPEHUAJES, Mexico — Mexican and U.S. scientists on June 28 marked the recovery of the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle here with the largest single-day turtle release since the binational recovery project began decades ago, helping close to 240,000 four-inch hatchlings wriggle across the sand and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Even though sea turtle nestings on Texas and Mexico beaches have soared to record highs this year, scientists this week tempered jubilation with caution, saying current levels of funding and work must continue for the world’s most endangered sea turtle to fully recover.

“We cannot look at a 2,000-turtle arribada [arrival] on May 11 as okay, that’s it, we got it, the turtle’s recovered, let’s pack it up and go home,” said Jaime Peña, conservation biologist with the Gladys Porter Zoo, who has been involved with the sea turtle project since 1994 and is now the U.S. operations director for all the turtle recovery camps in Mexico.

“This is the one yard line–we cannot stop right now,” Peña emphasized, borrowing the football analogy of a team about to score. “We have to reach a higher level of nesting. In 1947, they recorded on a very famous film over 40,000 turtles nesting one day in June, so we’re not there yet. But we’re taking the right steps.”

So far this year, close to 100 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles have come in to nest on Texas beaches, twice last year’s number, vindicating decades of work by U.S. scientists to establish a secondary nesting location in Texas. But Mexico is still far and away the primary home for the species, with more than 11,000 nestings so far this year within the 125-kilometer stretch of beach where 90 percent of the world’s Ridley population nests.

“Tonight is a big event,” said Octaviano Perez Tolentino, referring to the record hatchling release June 28. He supervises turtle recovery camps for the Secretario de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, the Tamaulipas state natural resource agency. “Because all camps that are involved with the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle will release many, many turtles and hopefully, in 15 years, these turtles will return to the same area to begin their nesting process.”

In 1978, the first year record-keeping began, 924 Ridley nests were recorded in Mexico. The numbers then steadily dropped to a record low of 702 in 1985, the dark days when many scientists believed the turtle was heading for extinction. Mexico had declared Rancho Nuevo the nation’s first reserve for sea turtle conservation in 1977. It was here north of Tampico in 1947 that Andres Herrera shot film that rocked the wildlife science world, showing an arribada of an estimated 40,000 nesting females on a single day. But years of uncontrolled human poaching and natural predation had already taken a toll in previous decades. It takes 10-15 years for the turtle to reach sexual maturity. So, even after the nesting beaches were protected, by the mid-1980s scientists were still seeing the lag effect of adult females killed in earlier years.

Still, scientists persevered. In 1981, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville to administer U.S. field operations in support of the Mexican conservation effort. Early work focused on protecting nesting beaches near Rancho Nuevo, but in 1988, they created a second camp to the south near Barra del Tordo.

Today, a half dozen camps each summer now host dozens of biologists, patrol technicians, grad students and volunteers from both nations, who live in primitive conditions that are nonetheless far superior to earlier decades. Each day they patrol the beaches on All-Terrain Vehicles, looking for nesting females. When they find one, they carefully dig up the eggs and take them back to protected corrals at the camps. About 45 days later, the eggs hatch and teams take the hatchlings down to the shoreline at night and let them crawl the last few yards into the Gulf. In spite of the human helping hand, scientists estimate that less than one percent of the hatchlings survive to maturity.

For many years, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the USFWS have provided funding to help keep the Mexican camps staffed and running, realizing that if Ridleys were to survive in Texas and U.S. waters, the key was supporting the Mexico nesting beaches.

In 1995, a new and unexpected partner emerged on the scene. Dr. Pat Burchfield of the Gladys Porter Zoo had gone to speak at a Texas shrimp industry meeting. This intrigued Les Hodgson, co-owner of Marco Sales, a Brownsville shrimp wholesaler, and he began a crusade to involve commercial shrimp fishermen in the Ridley recovery. Shrimpers had been blamed as one reason for the turtle’s decline, and in the 1990s they were required to start using Turtle Excluder devices, essentially holes in shrimp trawls (nets) that allow sea turtles to escape and avoid drowning.

“Pat Burchfield explained to us how important it was to keep a balance in nature,” Hodgson said. “How if you lose a specie it has an effect on another specie that has an effect on another specie. And if we want to maintain a good shrimp stock out in the Gulf, we’ve got to maintain a healthy environment for all the different animals out there.”

Hodgson and others got U.S. shrimpers to buy into the project, including Wild American Shrimp, the marketing arm of the organization that represents shrimpers in eight southern U.S. states along the Gulf and the Atlantic. They approached their Mexican counterparts with the organization CANAINPES about working together.

“They held their next meeting and came back and said only on one condition,” Hodgson recalls. “And we said uh-oh what’s that, and they said we want to be truly 50 percent partners with you. So together, the Mexican industry bought the property here at Tepehuajes, and between the fishermen from both countries, we spent about two months down here building the 12-bed facility for the biologists that run this camp.” Tepehaujes is the second most important Ridley turtle nesting beach.

The shrimpers, nonprofit environmental conservation groups and others also lobbied the U.S. government for continued funding in years when lean federal budgets threatened the project.

In 2000, the TPW Commission passed state regulations that set a seasonal commercial shrimp fishing closure from near Corpus Christi to the Mexican border, extending from the beach out to five nautical miles from December to mid-July. This was done to better manage the shrimp fishery, but it had the effect of protecting turtles during nesting season, which runs roughly May-July.

By the early years of this decade, turtle nestings in both nations had been steadily climbing for years, the fruit of many decades of sustained cooperative work.

In the last few years, the Mexican government, with funding and support from the shrimpers, has been working to involve the local people near the turtle beaches, many of whom lost their livelihoods when turtle egg sales were prohibited. The Tamaulipan governor’s wife recently led an effort to bring artists and teachers to the small village near Tepehaujes, looking for a way to bring new tourist dollars tied to the sea turtles into the community. A commercial kiln was funded and today local men, women and children make ceramic sea turtle art objects that are sold at the Gladys Porter Zoo and other locations.

What will it take to declare the Ridley project a true success? The recovery plan approved by government agencies involved calls for a total of 10,000 nesting females to “downlist” the specie from endangered to threatened. Experts estimate that would take about 30,000 total nestings in a single year. Based on current trends, Peña says the project could hit that mark by 2012.

– Texas Saltwater Fishing Guide