Early Efforts to Save Sea Turtles in Eastern Nicaragua

Archie Carr III

Resiliency is a needed trait for a conservationist; the ability to bounce back; to carry on in spite of setbacks. The variety of the reversals you might confront is surprising in its own right: a rejected grant; corruption in a critical agency; a hurricane; genocide in Africa; equipment failure; or worse --- the loss of a friend or colleague to illness, accident or mayhem. Somehow, you have to restore the will and optimism to continue the quest. Sometimes the challenge is global geopolitics. My director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, George Schaller, had to work around that kind of thing while studying Giant pandas in China, and then striving, successfully, to set up wildlife reserves in Tibet. I tried to launch a marine protected area in Nicaragua in 1980, but the effort was consumed in the Lost Decade of the Sandinista Era. I suppose the importance of the waters off eastern Nicaragua had been familiar to me since childhood. My father’s research on sea turtles, ongoing since the 1950s, had long ago identified the shallow waters over the unusually broad continental shelf off-shore from Cape Gracias a Dios, the big elbow where Nicaragua and Honduras are joined, as the home grounds for possibly the largest green turtle colony in the Caribbean Sea. He learned this by tagging turtles on the nesting beach at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. The majority of the tags returned to his office at the University of Florida for a small reward were from Nicaragua. The vast majority. This data, combined with historical sailing records from the colonial period, and even oral history that Archie himself had collected from the master turtle catchers, the “Captains of the Fleet,” from Grand Cayman, left the tantalizing suggestion that the eastern seaboard of Nicaragua was teeming with turtles. The turtles thrived there because their preferred food, turtle grass, a rooted macrophyte called Thallasia testudinum, grew there in abundance in the shallow water. The green turtle was practically the only grazer of the living plant. Once I learned a little ecology, I began to realize that this relationship, a single plant species supporting a single grazer, was remarkable in nature. It was more like the trophic relationship a cattle rancher seeks to establish between his bahaia grass pasture and his Angus steers. In theory, this simple model had staggering implications. Although not mapped with any accuracy, there were apparently hundreds of square miles of turtle grass in Nicaragua. The biomass of sea turtles sustained by those broad, submerged meadows must have been enormous. Direct counts of the fleets of turtles were not feasible,


but the indirect evidence, like the tag-return data my father had collected, suggested a very large colony of grazing turtles residing off the coast of Nicaragua. If the value of the shallow waters of Eastern Nicaragua as habitat for the endangered green turtle justified an effort to establish some sort of protected status for the area, another was the Miskito Indians. This ethnic group lived on the coast and thrived on turtle meat. Some scholars called them the “turtle people,” in recognition of the nutritional, economic, and cultural bonds between the Miskito people and the abundant green turtle. The northern reaches of the continental shelf were known as the Miskito Banks, shallow water dotted with the Miskito Keys. The shore was the Miskito Coast on some maps. Growing up, the young men became heroic in their mastery of small boats, far from shore, searching for grazing turtles to harpoon or net. The Miskito Banks were the homeland of an indigenous group, and proper management of the resources there was surely in their vital interest. This opportunity to provide a measure of cultural security for the Miskito, as well as to protect critical habitat for the green turtle, seemed to me to be good reason to mount a field project in Nicaragua. It was part of the conservation baggage I brought with me to New York; a pre-existing idea for priority action in Central America that I hoped I might be able to address from my new post at the Bronx Zoo, headquarters of the Wildlife Conservation Society. I was acquainted with the story of the green turtles by accident of birth. It so happened that I also knew something of the Miskito Indians. That was because of my father, as well. As the acknowledged wizard of sea turtle biology, scientists from all over the world would make it a point to communicate with Archie if their research interests had to do with turtles. In the late 1960’s, Bernard Nietschmann, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, became one of these pilgrims. Barney, a geographer, devoted his graduate studies to the Miskito Indians, the turtle people, and quite sensibly, he struck up a dialog with my father. I listened in on some of that, and learned that Barney was keen on documenting a sad economic trend among the Miskito, one with potentially drastic social implications for them. For centuries, the Miskito had hunted turtles and engaged in an elaborate turtle-meat barter and debt-settlement system back on shore, at the village. The meat was currency in a very real sense. And, aside from helping shape and sustain relations among family members, and among families, the trade benefited the people with superb nutrition. Plentiful turtle meat was supplemented with game from the forests, fish from the lagoons

that surrounded the villages, and with breadfruit, yucca, and a few other cultivated staples. But now, Barney reported, the barter and diet traditions of the Miskito were being assaulted. Meat canning plants had opened on the coast. Green turtle meat had a seemingly limitless market abroad, in Europe and the United States. The canneries paid hard cash for turtles, and the Miskito Indians were the most successful turtlers on the coast. They were being lured into this nature-based enterprise, this cash economy. I remember Barney Nietschmann lamenting perilous dietary consequences. With the cash earnings from selling boatloads of turtles, the Miskito bought Coca Cola and bleached wheat flour, and their consumption of protein-rich turtle meat dwindled, correspondingly. As the survival of the green turtle species became more imperiled, the health and cultural integrity of the Miskito people were being jeopardized. And so Archie, the turtle scientist, and Barney, the social scientist, conspired, and brought about a rare moment in conservation lore. Barney set up a private engagement with the wife of Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza, the dictator, whose family had ruled Nicaragua since 1936. Somoza owned the two turtle meat canneries, one in Puerto Cabezas and one on Corn Island. President Somoza, himself, was at the heart of this unique crisis, the two advocates argued, and might Mrs. Somoza consider intervening on behalf of turtle survival and cultural endurance? Evidently, she did, because both canneries were soon shut down. Nicaragua eventually joined CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and export of green turtles from Nicaragua ceased entirely. But, I was left longing to know the details of that bit of pillow talk between Mrs. Somoza and her notorious husband. How had she phrased her appeal to close the meat canning plants? Humanitarian grounds? That was doubtful. “Think of the turtles, Tachito.” Is that how it went down? I had visited Nicaragua in the early 1970’s, researching an article on the capabilities of Central American agencies to manage wildlife and run national parks. With an afternoon to spare, I went out of Managua into the country on a bus. There were a number of young men in the back of the bus, my age and a little younger, and they studied me, a gringo, with open interest as we rolled along in the dry heat. As we passed near a volcano, we could see greenish gases rising from the crater. “See that crater?” one of the guys asked. “There’s molten lava in there. That’s where Somoza throws his enemies!”


He and his buddies watched carefully, and with a little relish, for a reaction from me. I calculated they were as interested in the adolescent shock value of their report, as in the implied reprimand to me as an American. My country supported the Somoza family, after all. And Tachito cooked his detractors in volcanic craters. How in the world had he been persuaded to save the turtles? I took the job in New York in 1980, as I have reported. Although the Somoza government had fallen to the Sandinistas in July of 1979, the severity of things to come was not immediately apparent. Making an effort to protect the Miskito Cays remained a rational idea, despite the revolution in Nicaragua. In fact, in the fall of ’79, the Chief of Fauna and Flora of the Nicaraguan ministry of natural resources, Reynaldo Arostegui, appeared at the First World Sea Turtle Congress in Washington and appealed for international assistance to establish a refuge at the Miskito Cays. As my wife and I were driving in our rented truck across the New Jersey Turnpike, looking for the Bronx Zoo, my father, who was the chairman of a worldwide sea turtle specialist group, was applauding Arostegui for his commitment to the Miskito Cays, and assuring the Nicaraguan officer that help would come his way. I began correspondence to organize a field trip to Nicaragua as soon as I settled in my office at the zoo that spring. I was intimate with two key authorities –my father and Bernard Nietschmann-- on the issues pertaining to a Miskito Keys refuge. Barney was by now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, but he had done a stint at the University of Michigan. As a graduate student there, I had sought him out and enrolled in his seminar in geography. I knew a marine parks expert, as well. She was Nancy Foster, and she was Deputy Director of NOAA’s Marine Sanctuaries Program. Back at my previous job at Florida Audubon Society, I had come to know Nancy, mostly on the phone, when I joined others in lobbying to have the Flower Garden Banks in the Gulf of Mexico protected as a National Marine Sanctuary. I hadn’t known much about the Marine Sanctuaries Program, nor the Flower Gardens, prior to throwing in with Nancy, but I learned in a hurry, and quickly became impressed with her expertise and professionalism. There would be more than turtle biology and human ethnology to cope with in Nicaragua. There are certain planning and implementation protocols that are useful to follow in establishing a marine protected area, and Nancy was familiar with these. When I reached her by phone from New York, she enthusiastically agreed to join our team. I was in a race with history, but that is evident only retrospectively. The US and Nicaragua were maintaining diplomatic relations right through

the summer of 1980. In fact, our chief contact in the Nicaraguan government, Reynaldo Arostegui, and the one helping me plan the expedition to the Miskito Keys, was on a grand tour, a traveling national parks seminar, in Canada and the United States. In August, in a letter to the director of the Marine Sanctuaries Program seeking his authorization for Nancy Foster to participate in our Nicaraguan journey, I was able to state that Arostegui had assured me that “his government” would welcome the contributions of Ms. Foster to the effort to establish a refuge in the Miskito Keys. And Nancy, the US Government employee, was given permission to travel to Nicaragua. We went to Nicaragua in early September. Arriving in Managua late from Miami, we took a cab a long way across town to the Intercontinental Hotel, a haven for diplomats and journalists. The signs of grim conditions were immediately evident. There were gangs of beggar boys and girls assailing passengers in the parking lot of the airport. On the way to the hotel, we encountered the ruble and debris of the 1972 earthquake that had destroyed so much of Managua and had been notoriously neglected by Anastasio Somoza. City garbage was piled in one empty lot, and my father, a man who was not new to travel in the Third World, was visibly shaken by the appearance of bedraggled women and children scratching in the filth for scraps of food or other useful articles. The next day, after a long flight across the width of the country to the town of Puerto Cabezas, we witnessed another symptom of the new regimen in Nicaragua. There was a military base there: some barbed wire, pillboxes, a few small buildings. The uniformed soldiers looked to be 15 years of age. They walked around with AK-47s. They were kids, and those whose families lived in that town walked home that evening carrying their machine guns and looking sullen. Reynaldo Arostegui was dismayed to learn from his subalterns in Puerto Cabezas that there was no boat available for our trip to the keys. As the sponsor of the trip, I began to get edgy. Nancy Foster, Archie Carr, Barney Nietschmann, my team of experts, had come so far only to be marooned by the side of the sea. As I brooded in the heat, showing increasing agitation, I am sure, a solution to our transportation crisis was suggested by another of Arostegui’s government men. There was a confiscated boat at the pier, he said. It belonged to some lobstermen, Miskito Indians, from Honduras, who had been diving illegally in Nicaraguan waters. They were in jail for a while, and we could take their boat.


The ethics of that decision struck me as perhaps murky: We were going to employ a confiscated Miskito Indian boat to go survey a Miskito Keys sanctuary that we hoped would benefit the Miskito people. The ministry staff claimed the six crewmembers were foreign nationals, with no authority to be in Nicaragua. They were trespassing, and, what’s more, every lobster they took was one less for Nicaraguan citizens to harvest. There may have been some conventional logic to that, but in posing that argument, the government people highlighted a central, persistent dilemma on the coast. The Miskito Indians considered themselves a “nation” and their lands stretched from Nicaragua into Honduras. It was once the Miskito Kingdom, in fact, with its sovereignty acknowledged by Great Britain, if not by the Hispanic states of Central America. The Miskito sought autonomy. They had done so for decades. It was an ambition held in open contempt back in the Managua. With this age-old suspicion and disrespect between the two parties, the Miskitos of the Caribbean and the Ladinos of the Pacific, violating travel rules across the Nicaragua-Honduras border was not such an unexpected threat. So, there were indigenous rights issues associated with the imprisonment of the Miskito boat crew. And, there was money. The motor launch itself probably belonged to a very wealthy fish packer in the town of French Harbour on Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras. The fishing clans of Roatan had depleted Honduran waters years ago. The endless shallows of the Miskito Banks beckoned them. The French Harbour captains hired “Miskito boys” from the mainland, provided them with the boat, and instructed them to go and catch lobster. In a single cruise, the guys could earn more money than a family member working a year on the mainland. Big money. Worth a risk. We set off about midday for the two-hour cruise to Big Miskito Key. Nietschmann, who had lived among the Miskito, and knew these waters very well, gushed with information about the people, about how they hunt turtles, about the coral reefs and the turtle grass flats over and around which we motored. We saw a few big green turtles surface to “blow,” and then explode in a dive to avoid the perceived menace of our boat. We put on facemasks and snorkels, and Barney showed me how to catch spiny lobsters barehanded, without any hook, spear or other device. The keys themselves were mostly covered with mangroves. Brackish water could be found on some of the tiny islands. They were uninhabited. Turtlers, desiring to stay on the banks for many days, constructed little shacks on stilts, and slept over the water. This habit was made necessary, we


learned, because of sandflies that hung like smoke over the islands themselves. On our return to Puerto Cabezas that evening, we broke down. Perhaps it was punishment for commandeering the boat. Darkness had caught us out on the water, and with our forward motion lost, the boat began to bob around erratically in the mild swell. Members of our crew began to vomit almost immediately. There was a slow coastal current where we were, and it gently bore us south into the night. My father and I had stashed small flashlights in our duffels, probably in some bleak anticipation of this kind of predicament. I lit up the engine hatch cover and the boat’s skipper removed it and leaned down into the bilge. He soon discovered the problem: a ruptured fuel line. It was a diesel engine. The fuel line of a diesel is pressurized. The hose is made of rubber wrapped in steel mesh, so repairs in the field are challenging. A simple wrap of electrician’s tape would not do. The skipper explained the problem to us, wiping the diesel oil off his hands and wrists. With the wafting of fumes from spilled fuel there came another bout of vomiting from up in the bow. To repair the engine, we sabotaged the lobster boat. There was an air compressor bolted to the deck inside the cabin of the vessel. It was used to charge scuba tanks with air. The imprisoned Miskito crew of the boat dove deep with scuba to catch lobsters. In fact, they dove with such frequency and carelessness that diving diseases, like decompression illness, or “the bends,” were an epidemic on the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua and Honduras. The Miskito lads were crippling and killing themselves in pursuit of the lobster; in pursuit of the dollar. The compressor was rigged with stiff rubber hoses, and we cut a section out of one of these. By splitting this piece lengthwise, we made a sleeve that fit easily around the cracked fuel line of the diesel engine. The skipper tied the sleeve in place with cord and tape. It was a strong patch, and we chugged on to Puerto Cabezas without further incident, and with a gradual cheering among our weary seasick colleagues. I was relieved to get my esteemed father and friends off the water that night. From the balcony of our little hotel, I watched the Sandinista boysoldiers wander home with their lethal weapons. I sipped from a bottle of Victoria beer, and tried to shed enough accumulated anxiety to refocus on the mission, a conservation plan for the Miskito Keys. There was something inescapably inauspicious about the moment --- even if I had personally favored the Sadinista revolution.


Before September was out, I had circulated a draft proposal and a map of the suggested refuge to Archie, Nancy Foster and Barney Nietschmann. Anastasio Somoza was assassinated that month in Asuncion, Paraguay, where he was trying to set up an exiled existence. Reynaldo Arostegui accepted our final report in October, but the door was already slamming. Jimmy Carter, a president who seemed to me to be showing himself to be a compassionate friend to Latin America, lost an election to Ronald Reagan in November. The Sadinista regime stubbornly turned more and more to avowed enemies of the United States for military and economic assistance. With Cuba and the Soviet Union in the picture, the diplomatic options available to the US were reduced drastically. In early 1981, the United States shut down virtually all but covert military involvement with Nicaragua, and the terrible decade had begun. The concept of a protected area for the Miskito Keys was to languish for years. The Miskito Indians themselves were to engage the Sadinista armies outright, in some cases, and to be forced to flee to Honduras en masse in many others. Arostegui’s ministry, spurred on by Scandinavian agencies, would eventually propose a “Peace Park” called Si-A-Paz, in the San Juan River Valley, between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but the Miskito Coast was a war zone. No man’s land. Paradoxically, the sea turtles probably benefited from human crisis on the mainland. Ten years of virtual freedom from nets and harpoons.
Sea turtle research and conservation in eastern Nicaragua continues to this very day. It is directed by Drs. Cynthia Lagueux and Cathi Campbell, with the on-going sponsorship of the Wildlife Conservation Society(WCS). Access to at least some of the work can be obtained at the WCS website: