Former flyer saved sea turtles
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1997:
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND,
Texas––Ila Loetscher, 92, has announced
her retirement after 35 years of patrolling
beaches in Texas and Mexico, machete in
hand, to roust sea turtle egg poachers, rehabilitating
sick and injured sea turtles, and
dressing as a turtle to lecture school children
at twice-weekly “Turtle Talks.”
Sea Turtle Inc., the nonprofit organization
Loetscher founded in 1977, continues,
planning to relocate from her beachfront
home to a state-of-the-art conservation center
as soon as funds can be raised to build it.
Loetscher with Amelia Earhart and
others in 1929 cofounded the Ninety-Nines,
an all-female flying club whose members
achieved countless records and firsts, another
of which eluded Earhart when she vanished
over the Pacific in her 1937 attempt to
become the first woman to fly around the
globe. Loetscher found her more enduring
avocation, preventing the ocean disappearance
of some of the earth’s most ancient large
species, after moving to the Texas coast in
1958 and finding a hurt turtle on the beach.
Self-taught turtle rehab led to an introduction
to Brownsville building contractor Dearl
Adams, who in the early 1960s began the
“turtle camp” whose volunteers annually protect
the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nesting area
at Rancho Nuevo, Mexico from poachers.
With Adams, Loetscher brought some
Kemp’s ridley eggs back to South Padre
Island, Texas, hoping to start a second nesting
colony. Results are ambiguous, but there
are signs that such a colony may be developing––just
in time, as with only about 1,500
Kemp’s ridley females left, the Rancho
Nuevo colony and the species could be wiped
out by just one bad storm or oil spill.
Loetscher has also lived long
enough to see Scribner’s, on January 10,
pledge to delete from the next edition of The
Joy Of Cooking the green sea turtle soup
recipe that each previous edition has featured
since 1931. The decision took Scribner’s
vice president and senior editor Maria
Guarnaschelli just seconds after Ellen Smith
of the Florida-based Sea Turtle Survival
League brought the recipe to her attention.
The present edition appeared in 1974, one
year after green sea turtles became one of the
first species protected by the Endangered
Still endangered, green sea turtles
made a rare nesting in South Carolina last winter, producing
more than 100 hatchlings who were airlifted on December 10
by Coast Guard helicopter to water warm enough for them to
survive. The only previous known nesting in South Carolina
resulted in a successful unassisted hatching last October.
Ironically, aviation radio technology that Loetscher
and the other Ninety-Nines helped introduce is also helping to
save sea turtles, via satellite tracking. Early results indicate
that Pacific leatherbacks and Atlantic greens both migrate in
relatively narrow corridors––which once fully identified can be
better protected against such hazards as accidental fishnetting.
Whether they can be protected against disease is
another matter. Fibropapilloma disease, related to human herpes
and deadly to turtles, has apprently spread worldwide.
Turtles whose immune systems are impaired by exposure to
chemical pesticides seem especially vulnerable, the Archie
Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of
Florida reports. Already up to half the green sea turtles in the
Indian River Lagoon and 75% of those in Florida Bay are
afflicted, says Carr Center scientist Paul Klein.
Sea turtles in U.S. waters are also still threatened by
fishing and human use of nesting beaches. The National
Marine Fisheries Service banned the use of so-called “soft” turtle
excluder devices last December, finding them ineffective in
releasing turtles from shrimp nets, and extended the TED rule
to prohibit imports of shrimp and prawns from nations that
don’t require TED use––prompting Australia, Malaysia, and
Thailand to complain to the World Trade Organization.
Despite the tougher rules, Texas shrimpers killed 17 Kemp’s
ridley turtles during the first two weeks of April alone.
The Humane Society of the U.S. alleged on April 6
that a five-month probe last year found the TEDs had been disabled
on 13 of 32 Texas shrimp boats inspected. HSUS vice
president for investigations Richard Swain said the evidence
had been given to NMFS. NMFS spokesperson Scott Smullen
said the agency had received “inconclusive” photos from
HSUS. NMFS’ own inspectors found 119 TED violations in
2,724 visits aboard shrimp boats in 1996.
Enforcement difficulty notwithstanding, the New
Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has extended a
TED rule to crabbers, effective January 1, 1998, to protect
Following up a 1996 crackdown on sea turtle meat
and egg poaching, five years after banning the consumption of
sea turtles and their eggs, Mexico on February 4 announced an
allocation of $64,000 to clear debris from sea turtle sanctuaries
along the Tamaulipas coast on the Gulf of Mexico, so that turtles
coming ashore can more easily find nesting sites.
The gesture was welcomed by sea turtle conservation
advocates, for whom good news has been scorce since economically
desperate Cuba asked the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species to move the Cuban
hawksbill sea turtle population from CITES Appendix I, forbidding
all trade, to Appendix II, with allowances for export
to “one trading partner” believed to be Japan. The application
is opposed by the U.S., and is rated little chance of approval,
but the mere asking suggests Cuban hawksbills are at risk.
Attack on the wrong Castro
But not every scheme to profit by turtles goes
through a legal procedure. Ostional Development Association
biologist Juan Carlos Castro was clubbed unconscious the night
of February 13 by an unknown assailant outside the University
of Costa Rica Research Station, then dragged to the beach and
abandoned with a broken right orbital ocular and cheekbone
plus a broken left hand. No one was charged with the assault,
though Castro reportedly identified his attacker to police.
“During the last months,” asserted Randall Arauz of
the Costa Rican Sea Turtle Restoration Project, “Juan Carlos
has been involved in a battle against the Tempisque
Conservation Area, which belongs to the Ministry of the
Environment,” because TCA granted to Tecnatur S.A., a private
firm, permission to develop a sea turtle research and
tourism facility on land in the Ostional Wildlife Refuge used
since 1978 by ODA and UCR.
As word of the incident reached news media through
the Internet, one “Michelle Franks,” of Fairfax, Virginia,
purportedly an Ostional sea turtle project volunteer, responded
to Arauz by accusing Castro of repeated violence against
Tecnatur S.A. founders Anny and Leslie Chavez, alleged that
Castro and Arauz are drug dealers, and claimed two other biologists
funded by Earth Island Institute are under investigation
by the Costa Rican police for turtle egg trafficking.
But according to longtime Earth Island Institute sea
turtle project director Todd Steiner, apparently confirmed by
repeated searches of World Wide Web data bases, there seems
to be no such person as “Michelle Franks,” either involved in
sea turtle work or at the address she listed in Fairfax, Virginia.
“As far as we know,” Steiner said, “the whole thing
other than the beating of Juan Carlos Castro was made up.”
“All I can say right now,” Arauz added, two weeks
after the attack, “is that ‘Michelle Franks’ and the hit man in
the Ostional area are the same person.”
Whether the “hit man” favored Tecnatur S.A., or
opposed turtle conservation generally, was also unclear.
A hint of rising concern for turtles in a region where
they have long been eaten came from Fiji on April 7, when
fisheries minister Militoni Leweniqila, after imposing a oneyear
ban on killing sea turtles last year to mark the Year of the
Turtle, extended it for three more years pending completion of
“research on a sustainable turtle harvest.” Turtle-killing for socalled
ceremonial purposes continues.
But turtle experts are concerned about plans by Thai
investors to dredge a deepwater port at Ban Thap Lemu, north
of Thai Muang National Park. The park, which might be
affected by drifting silt and oil spills, includes one of the two
known nesting sites for the highly endangered olive ridley sea
turtle, and is also an important leatherback nesting area.