They are called hueveros and they collect sea turtle eggs.
Working their way along the rocky coasts and isolated mangrove estuaries of El Salvador, many people eke out a hard living by pilfering sea turtle nests and selling the eggs. Conservation International’s Bryan Wallace, Science Advisor for the Sea Turtle Flagship Program, is working alongside numerous local and international partners to address this issue while involving local communities in the conservation work.
Hawksbills in El Salvador
According to Wallace, the population of hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) in the Eastern Pacific are considered the most threatened sea turtle population in the world.
The entire species – the sum of every population found anywhere on the planet – has been placed in the category of species with the highest risk of extinction recognized by IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species™.
They are so rare that, until recently, there were no estimates of how many turtles were left in the region, or where important nesting and feeding sites occurred.
Last summer, Wallace participated in the first workshop on the Eastern Pacific hawksbill, held in Los Cobanos, El Salvador. The workshop convened a team of sea turtle experts and conservationists, from the U.S. to Mexico to Ecuador, to compile all existing information on hawksbills in the region.
One major finding: A majority of hawksbill nesting activity, as well as important foraging habitat, occurs in El Salvador.
The initiative also tagged three adult female hawksbills with satellite transmitters to better understand the species’ behavior and habitat use. The process revealed some sobering facts.
The Casualties of Bomb Fishing
Amidst the brutal heat, mosquito-filled air, habitat degradation and poverty, it became clear that the egg hunters weren’t the only threat the turtles had to face
Fewer than 20 fishermen in Bahía de Jiquilisco continue a tradition of “bombing” for fish using homemade dynamite-based explosives. Says Wallace, “Essentially, it’s the short-cut version of fishing. Toss a bomb into the water and collect the dead and stunned fish that float to the surface.”
Unfortunately, turtles are too often among the casualties. At least 15 adult female hawksbills – the most important individuals in the population – have been confirmed killed by bomb fishing.
Humans are being harmed too. Wallace’s colleagues have noticed several local people missing hands because of premature explosions. He relayed a remarkable story about the lack of deterrence the danger instills.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: There are many actions you can take to help save sea turtle habitats.
“Our colleagues in Jiquilisco told us about a guy who lost one hand to a bomb, only to start throwing the bombs with his other hand until a bomb took that hand, too. But that didn’t stop him,” Wallace added.
“Holding the bomb between his two stumps, he would dropkick it to deploy it. Then he blew off one of his feet. Now, of course, he tosses the bombs into the water with his mouth.”
The clear danger of this practice has only intensified the urgency for conservationists. Participants in the workshop, which gave rise to the Iniciativa de la Carey del Pacifico Oriental (ICAPO), signed a letter to the government of El Salvador urging it to end bomb fishing and support conservation efforts for hawksbills and other sea turtles in the country.
The Fundación Zoológica de El Salvador (FUNZEL) and the Instituto de Ciencias Marinas y Limnología de la Universidad Nacional de El Salvador (ICMARES) have initiated programs to involve local communities – including the hueveros – in finding and safeguarding nesting hawksbills and protecting their eggs in nearby hatcheries.
Although in a very early stage, the word is spreading in El Salvador’s coastal communities. Despite suffering from poverty and failing resources, El Salvador has been crowned "the hawksbill capital” of the Eastern Pacific, charging it with pride and responsibility for the species’ future in the region.
Combined with the new information being gathered by the three tagged turtles, the new developments offer a bright glimmer of hope.
READ MORE: Sea turtle conservation is happening around the world.