Conservation alliance protects sea turtles and wins award

turtle singing

Serenading sea turtles with ancient songs is one way the Seri Indians help the endangered species survive their long migration journey. Another way is to enlist the help of Northern Arizona University.

For more than a decade, a team from NAU’s Center for Sustainable Environments and Applied Indigenous Studies has been supporting the Seri Indian efforts to protect endangered sea turtles, which has led to a decreased mortality for the species on the Sonora Coast of Mexico. The collaboration is also receiving international praise.

“We’ve been working with the Seri young people to help them become para-ecologists,” said Gary Nabhan, director for the CSE. “We’ve helped them learn to manage their own natural resources by showing them how to monitor natural habitats and become wildlife technicians.”

According to Laurie Monti, a research associate in AIS, the status of the sea turtle is an indicator of the overall health of fisheries on the Gulf of California.

“The Seri understand that by protecting the sea turtles and their habitat, they are ensuring their own survival as a fishing community,” Monti said. “This blending of conservation science and traditional ecological knowledge is not only a means to recover endangered wildlife, but also protects human health.”

The collaboration also included aid from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Turtle Program, Grupo Tortuguero de Baja California and most recently, Ocean Revolution, an international ocean conservatory.

The successful efforts to protect the sea turtles garnered an Ocean Revolution Native Ocean’s International Award presented by a consortium of six leading environmental organizations during a World Ocean Day celebration and award ceremony in Washington, D.C., on June 7.

Nabhan and Monti accompanied three Seri youth—Erika Molina, Mayra Estrella and Fernando Morales—to accept the award on behalf their group, Grupo Tortuguero Comcaac, a coalition of Seri Indian youth working to combine Native tradition with science to protect the reptiles.

Monti spends half of the year working in the biologically rich coastal desert area where sea turtles and many other species play a large role in the Seri culture.

She said many of the Seri’s customs are used to help save the turtles. For example, an elderly Seri, who had hunted the turtles for more than 50 years, revealed that different populations of turtles have different foraging habits, resulting in more accurate mapping and protection work.

Monti recently documented the Seri ecological efforts in Seri Songs of Survival, a film made with film maker Peter Blystone. In 2003, Nabhan published, Singing the Turtles to Sea: The Comcaac (Seri) Art and Science of Reptiles from the University of California Press.

The Ocean Revolution Native Oceans Award recognizes youth from a coastal community whose contributions support future sustainable habitats through preserving and nurturing relationships with the sea. The award is sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, Ocean Revolution, Conservation International, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Marine Conservation Biology Institute and the World Conservation Union.