Sea Turtles, © William R. Curtsinger / National Geographic Stock

Mexico Protects Sea Turtle Nesting Habitat

Juan Carlos Cantu, Mexico Program Manager

Humans can regularly be seen on Mexico’s beaches, umbrella drink in hand. But we’re not the only ones who regularly hit the country’s beautiful sandy coastline. Literally, every sea turtle species on earth nests on Mexico’s beaches, save one that is only found in Australia. That’s why we’re known as the sea turtle capital of the world, and that’s why the way Mexico protects its sea turtles matters on a global scale.

Current Mexican law classifies all sea turtle species as endangered. But unfortunately this really only means turtles are protected from direct harvest—meaning they can’t be killed for their meat, skin, shell or eggs. Yet other factors pose serious dangers, including damage to and destruction of sea turtle habitat. Even nesting habitat, which is particularly important to the survival of these species, was not legally protected.

But not anymore, because in February, a new Mexican law (known as Official Norm-162) took effect, and it offers a whole slate of new protections for sea turtle nesting grounds in Mexico.

Previously, only the most important sea turtle nesting sites have been designated as sanctuaries and natural reserves, which allowed them some level of protection but left the majority of nesting habitat vulnerable.  But now, the new regulation extends habitat protections to all turtle nesting sites. Here are just some of the things that this new and unprecedented regulation has accomplished for sea turtle nesting habitat:

Protecting Native Habitat
The new regulation forbids the removal of native vegetation in the nesting habitat. When coastal vegetation is removed, especially from sand dunes, it allows increased erosion that could eventually destroy nesting beaches. In addition, some turtles like the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle even prefer to crawl up the beach all the way up to the vegetation to nest.

Putting Out Artificial Lights
The regulation also addresses one of the main factors that disrupt nesting turtles: artificial lights from houses, hotels and roads. These light sources can not only disorient nesting females, but they can be lethal to emerging hatchlings. As they climb their way up from their sandy nest, newly-hatched turtles look for the subtle light reflecting off the surf and waves to orient themselves towards the sea. Artificial lighting can point them in the wrong direction and when you are that young, one wrong turn can force you to use up your limited energy stores, leading to an almost certain death. Even those that eventually make their way to the surf can be too exhausted to swim away, becoming easy pickings for fish and marine birds. For the first time in Mexico, this new regulation calls for moving, changing or eliminating any light sources that illuminates a nesting beach or creates a glow that could disorient the females or hatchlings. These changes won’t happen overnight, but authorities are already informing beachside homeowners and hotels of the new rules.

Off-Road Vehicles
The new regulation also helps address the use of heavy vehicles on the beach. Heavy vehicles may compact sand, destroy nests and eggs, create deep ruts that can become traps for nestlings and basically tear up nesting beaches. No more. From now on, vehicles on nesting beaches have to be less than 300 kg in weight and can only be used for patrolling and management of the nesting site.

In the U.S., sea turtle nesting grounds are often carefully protected. (© Robert S. Donovan)

In the U.S., sea turtle nesting grounds are often carefully protected. (© Robert S. Donovan)

Spectators
A less obviously threatening activity also outlawed by the new regulation is the release of newly hatched sea turtles. Many hotels near nesting beaches offer guests the opportunity to be part of the release of hatchlings into the sea. The problem is that they keep the hatchlings in confinement for many days until enough people sign up for the activity. So when they are released after being held in captivity, they are too weak to handle the surf or avoid predators. Hatchlings need to get into the water as soon as possible after hatching so they can use their limited energy to swim away. This tourism practice is now forbidden, and hatchlings have to be released immediately. Also for the first time, those who want to watch sea turtles laying their eggs during nesting season will have to follow strict rules.

All of these and many more regulations will help protect beaches, nests, female sea turtles, their eggs and hatchlings from now on. I am proud to say that Defenders of Wildlife played a key role in making this happen. We worked on this regulation for many years; in fact we were the ones who proposed its creation back in 2002. It took a decade of lobbying before we got the Environment Ministry to develop it, and Defenders is one of only four non-governmental organizations credited with helping to make these new protections a reality. It took a long time to get these regulations adopted but now when sea turtles hit Mexico’s beaches to nest, they will find it a safer place than ever.

13 Responses to “Mexico Protects Sea Turtle Nesting Habitat”

  1. Shelli

    I am so happy to hear about these new protections for sea turtles. I have spent many happy days on and around the beaches of the Yucatan peninsula and for the most part saw nesting sites that were fairly well protected but this can only be good news for those sites in heavy tourist areas that need better protection. Kudos to Defenders of Wildlife for helping to get this important piece of legislation passed and to the Mexican government for doing so.

    Reply
  2. margaret Gottshall

    so happy to hear that they are being better taken care of I love all of Gods creatures he put here for us to enjoy to look at and be there for them

    Reply
  3. Becky DeGrossa

    This is good news, however, how is this going to be enforced? I just watched a turtle lay her eggs. There were 20-25 people around her — within 4 feet of her. Flashes were going off the whole time. After the mother buried her eggs and began her trip back into the water, people were touching her, getting pictures with her. It was very disturbing.

    There were two men who were there to dig up the eggs to protect them — but they were fine with people flashing their cameras and even TOUCHING the mother as she went back to the sea. Having spent a lot of time in Hawaii, I’ve heard many times that we shouldn’t touch them — that we have human bacteria that they aren’t equipped to handle.

    It seems that the hotels along Cancun’s beaches need to take an active role in informing their guest to be more respectful of the sea turtle’s nesting process.

    Any idea about how to enforce this better? The conservation folks aren’t doing what they can, aside from moving the eggs to a safe place.

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Juan Carlos

      Hola Becky,

      You are right, hotels need to take an active role. We have been working with the Municipality of Los Cabos and they have been engaging hotel managers explaining to them the new rules. They have started to change the way they work with sea turtles

      It takes a while for any new regulation to reach everyone and much longer for its compliance. Nevertheless it is very useful for anyone who sees an activity that is not according to the rules to complain to the hotel manager. They need to know they are not doing things right and that their customers are not happy about it.

      saludos,

      Juan Carlos

  4. Larry Collinge

    I was glad to find this blog and was reassured to see in writing that heavy vehicles are not permitted on turtle habitat beaches in Mexico. The discouraging thing is that there seems to be no enforcement on many beaches. I winter in Melaque (in Bahia de Navidad, Jalisco, and there is an ever increasing number of ATV’s. If anyone knows of a way to increase enforcement, please let that information be known. Mexican law enforcement is seriously inept, unless you want to pay someone off.

    Reply
  5. Donna Walzer

    Twice we have been a part of the releasing of the baby turtles in Mazatlan. No cameras were allowed and there wasn’t a sign up sheet. In fact, it wasn’t widely broadcasted to the hotel guests, only a small notice. We rubbed our hands with sand, and we only touched the turtles when they were placed on our hands by the aquarium employees. Once the turtles were on the beach, we were not allowed to touch them. The procedure was closely controlled by the authorities from the local aquarium. We were told about the natural predators of the sea turtle, and it gave me an appreciation of the sea turtles that survived. With this new law I doubt if the hotel will continue to allow the guests to be a part of the turtle release. This particular hotel is interested in the preservation of the sea turtle, and educating the public.

    Reply
  6. Tracey Y

    I just went to Cancun last week and I was really disheartened to see tourists trying to touch turtles and swimming literally right up to them. Another hotel guest even saw someone hugging the turtle and keeping it from getting air.

    On top of all this the Cancun airport has an ad on loop that shows kids releasing turtles on the beach. It is illegal to touch them isn’t it? If so, why are they advertising this? The hotels and tourism industry needs to step up their environmentalism and reduce their exploitation. Else there won’t be anything to exploit.

    Reply

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