It wasn't long ago that many sea turtle experts assumed there were too few hawksbill turtles along the Pacific coast of the Americas to bother protecting. A report from the conservation group Oceana in 2007 stated matter-of-factly that "population levels are so low that scientists rarely encounter them." One reason for this was the assumption that hawksbills in this region would live almost exclusively around coral reefs, as they do just about everywhere else in the world. This coast has relatively few reefs; therefore, scientists believed, there must be fewer turtles. In addition, no beaches along this coast had been identified as major hawksbill nesting sites, making it even more difficult to estimate population size.
Alexander and his wife Ingrid weren't so sure the gloomy population estimates were correct. In 2008 they began researching hawksbills in Baja California, Mexico, and talking to other turtle conservationists in the region. Around that time, they met Michael Liles, a turtle researcher and now director of ICAPO-El Salvador, who had recently discovered the hawksbill nesting in Jiquilisco Bay during a nationwide beach survey. Determined to find additional nesting sites, the trio organized a meeting in El Salvador and invited turtle conservationists from around the region. One who attended was José Urteaga, former Nicaragua Coordinator at Fauna & Flora International (FFI), who reported another potential nesting site in northwestern Nicaragua. These two nesting areas, less than 100 miles apart and unknown to science a decade ago, now account for roughly 90 percent of known hawksbill nesting on the Pacific coast between Mexico and Ecuador.
The discovery of these two nesting areas has given new hope for the future of hawksbill turtles in the region. But it also creates a major sense of urgency to address the threats that the hawksbills face. One serious threat is from an especially destructive form of fishing used in the area, known as blast fishing. As violent as it sounds, this technique uses a mixture of sugar, chlorate, and sulfur to create an explosion that kills anything within an estimated radius of up to 80 feet (25 meters), including turtles. ICAPO estimates that more than 25 hawksbills have been killed by blast fishing in Jiquilisco Bay since 2004 (out of a total estimated regional population of fewer than 1,000 turtles). ICAPO works with US-based organization EcoViva to address blast fishing and lobby the government to enforce laws against this illegal fishing practice.
I had an opportunity to join an international research team visiting both of these Central American wildlife hotspots to learn about the threats to these turtles and the people working to protect them. Since we had arrived at Jiquilisco Bay in the dark, the morning boat ride was my first daylight impression of El Salvador's largest wetland, critically important for its wildlife habitat and fisheries. The blue water was ringed by volcanoes, looming over the water like giant sentries. We arrived as preparations for the day's big event, the annual Hawksbill Turtle Festival, were just getting underway.