Sea Turtles and Their Eggs

James J Parsons. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

From earliest times the seashore, with its rich and diverse marine fauna, has been a uniquely attractive environment fr humans, providing them with accessible, palatable, and protein-rich sustenance (Sauer 1962). Among other foods—at least in warmer seas of tropical latitudes—were giant marine turtles. These could be harvested with relative ease, either on the beaches while nesting or netted or harpooned offshore. Their soft-shell and Ping-Pong-Ball-like eggs, deposited in clutches of 100 or more in the warm sand of favored beaches, provided further nutritious fare.

Among the six or seven species of giant marine reptiles that are recognized, it is the green turtle, the Chelonia mydas of turtle-soup fame, that has contributed most to the human diet. Unlike other sea turtles, the greens are exclusively herbivores, thus accounting for the savory quality of their veal-like flesh. Their name derives not from the color of their shell or skin but from the soft, greenish gelatinous material known as calipee, found beneath the plastron (lower shell) and scraped from slaughtered turtles to prepare the thick green soup renowned among gastronomes.

The flesh of other sea turtles, although eaten by some coastal peoples, is generally reputed to have a somewhat uninviting fishy taste. If the animal has ingested toxic algae or crustaceans, it may even be poisonous. The hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), prized from antiquity as the source of the beautifully mottled tortoiseshell of commerce, is valued for jewelry and ornamentation, whereas the olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) has recently been much sought after for its skin, used to make leather goods.This use has been stimulated by changing styles and a scarcity of crocodile skins. The smaller Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii), the loggerhead (Caretta caretta), and the giant leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) have not traditionally been utilized. The eggs of all species are eaten. Egg collection is either an open or a clandestine business on numerous strands throughout the tropical world.

The countless “turtle islands” (such as Islas Tortugas, Iles Tortues, and Schilpad Eilanden) of tropical seas bear witness to the preference of green and other sea turtles for uninhabited offshore islands for nesting as well as to their remarkable fidelity to specific, and sometimes quite small, beaches. They unerringly return to these sites after migrations to feeding areas that may be a thousand or more miles away. Such nesting habits, especially pronounced among the greens and the two ridleys, have made sea turtles particularly vulnerable to human exploitation and lie at the base of their endangered status.

The males spend their entire lives at sea, but the females, once gravid, may make several nocturnal visits to their ancestral beaches during each nesting cycle. These cycles usually come at intervals of four or more years. Scooping out a pit in the sand with their flippers, they bury their one hundred or so eggs before lumbering back to the surf and waiting mates. Two months later, the frenzied hatchlings, not much larger than a silver dollar, emerge to scamper quickly toward the water through a gauntlet of waiting predators. For those that survive, this is the beginning of a long and mysterious migration. As mature adults they will return several years later to the same beach on which they were born. Their imprinting, and the guidance mechanism that allows them, without visible landmarks, to travel the great distances between feeding areas and nesting beaches, remains among nature’s grandest enigmas.

Atlantic and Pacific populations, long separated, carry distinctive DNA markers. Moreover, size helps to distinguish the Atlantic turtles from their counterparts on the West Coast of America. The latter constitute the subspecies Chelonia mydas agassiz, known locally as caguama prieta (black turtle), whose adult members weigh from 65 to 125 kilograms. By contrast, their Atlantic and Indian Ocean counterparts are substantially larger (100 to 200 kilograms), with some from Ascension Island in the past weighing a reported 600 kilograms.

Today, sea turtles are disastrously overexploited by a rapidly expanding world population and are victimized by pollution, coastal development, and new fishing technologies. Worldwide concern for their future has led to the recent imposition of tight controls on sea turtle exploitation by all but traditional fishing folk. In the last few years, all marine turtles save the Australian flatback (Natator depressus) have been classified as either “threatened” or “endangered,” and traffic in them and products made from them have been largely eliminated through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), subscribed to by most of the world’s nations. With the newly sharpened sensitivity toward conservation, and with trade in turtle products curbed or banned, the days of turtle soup and turtle steaks in the gourmet restaurants of the world’s great cities have effectively come to an end.

Old World Cultural Attitudes

Cultural attitudes toward foods, particularly the consumption of animal flesh, may be decisively influenced by religion. Avoidance of sea turtle meat, as with that of the freshwater or land tortoises with which they are often confused, is widespread in South and Southeast Asia (Simoons 1994; Charles Tambiah, personal communication). The eggs are at the same time, much sought after, prized for their presumed health-giving and aphrodisiac properties. Hinduism holds turtles in veneration. Lord Vishnu is said to have taken the form of a sea turtle during one of his reincarnations, raising the world from chaos and conflict. Turtles are thus depicted as bearers of the world and, as such, command respect. Among the devout the meat is not consumed.

In theory, the Islamic faith prohibits eating the meat of reptiles. However, although this is a restriction affecting vast numbers of shore people around the Indian Ocean, it is apparently not operative in North Africa. But, although the Muslim Malay may not eat turtle, the many Chinese living in Singapore and elsewhere in the area have no aversion to it. Turtles offered in urban markets may be taken in nets or harpooned, but turning them over on the beaches is prohibited.

Buddhists, too, avoid turtle flesh, and to gain favor with the deity, they set free turtles that become entangled in their fishing nets.The Burmese are said to consider turtles divine and keep them in tanks on pagoda grounds where they are fed special foods, but this practice may more often involve river turtles. Early Chinese sources refer to freshwater or land tortoises as symbolic of the good and the long life. Only with the conquest of the south in the Han period (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) did sea turtles become generally available. In T’ang times (A.D. 618-907) the green sea turtle and its calipee are recorded as having been a tribute to the royal court paid by the city of Canton (Simoons 1991). In contemporary China, turtles apparently continue to occupy a special niche in folk belief and the apothecary trade. The recent world-record-shattering performances of several female Chinese track-and-field athletes have been attributed to their drinking of turtle blood (Sports Illustrated, October 24, 1994).

If there are many cases of abstinence, there are exceptions that test the rule. On Hindu Bali, as among Polynesian and Micronesian groups and converted Christians generally, turtle flesh is especially consumed at festivals and on ceremonial occasions. Pliny long ago wrote of a cave-dwelling people at the entrance to the Red Sea who worshiped the turtle as sacred yet ate its flesh. Among subsistence shore-dwelling communities of the Indian subcontinent and those throughout Southeast Asia on whom religions often rest easily, turtle is still likely to provide a significant and palatable dietary supplement as well as a source of occasional cash income. Pagan coastal peoples in Southeast Asia have generally held sea turtle eggs and flesh in high esteem. Among Australian Aborigines who live close to the sea, the green turtle remains a principal totem.

At the same time, many, and perhaps most, of the turtle beaches of these southern seas support intensive egg-collecting operations under licensing systems controlled by local authorities. These systems are often designed to assure that sufficient quantities of eggs are left to support reproduction of the turtle populations. There were, for example, more than 30 such licensed areas for egg collecting not long ago on the east coast of Malaya. The three Turtle Islands off Sarawak until 1950 consistently yielded harvests of from 1 to 2 million eggs a year, the product of a population of perhaps 10,000 females (Hendrickson 1958).Watchers on each island marked new nests each night with flags, returning in the morning to dig and box the eggs for shipment to Kuching, the Sarawak capital. The proceeds went to charities or the mosques.The killing of sea turtles is prohibited in Sarawak, as in most Southeast Asian countries, but poaching is widespread.

The American Experience

Among Native Americans encountered by the first Europeans in the turtle-rich Caribbean, attention appears to have been focused on the giant reptiles as a source of meat, whereas their eggs were of secondary interest.The green turtle was and still is at the base of the diet of such coastal people as the Miskito of Nicaragua and Honduras, the Baja California tribes, and the Seri of Sonora, all living close to major turtle pasturing grounds. In the West Indies, unfortunately, the large populations of nesting and grazing turtles described by the early chroniclers at Grand Cayman, the Dry Tortugas, and Bermuda were quickly exterminated (Carr 1954). Only at Tortuguero in Costa Rica and on tiny Aves Island off Venezuela do the greens continue to congregate in numbers in the Caribbean.

At least one Carib group in the Lesser Antilles was said not to have eaten sea turtle “for being fearful of taking on the characteristics of that reptile” (Rochefort 1606, 2: 202).Yet eggs were relished. A similar preoccupation with turtle eggs, rather than turtle flesh, was evident for early Indian peoples on the west coast of Mexico and in Brazil. Turtle eggs are smaller than those of poultry but have more fatty yolk. They are often consumed raw. One might speculate, in terms of conservation, whether it is better to take the turtles or their eggs. Had both been subject to unrestrained exploitation, the prospects for the survival of the species would have been bleak much earlier.

The Europeans who first came into contact with the green and hawksbill populations of the Caribbean were not of one accord in their judgment of this fortuitously accessible new resource. The Spanish and Portuguese seemed for the most part uninterested in turtle. Alvise da Cadamosto, the first Portuguese to mention what must have been the green turtle, fed it to his crew in the Cape Verde Islands in 1456 and found it “a good and healthy” food. Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdez, in his Historia Natural of 1526, agreed. But most Spanish and Portuguese chroniclers of the early period ignored the animal or suspected it of being poisonous; it was the later-arriving English who were most outspoken in their praise of the green turtle’s virtues (Parsons 1962). Its health-giving qualities were much commented upon by observers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To John Fryer (1909: 306), writing of East India and Persia in the late seventeenth century, it was “neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring, restoring vigor to the body and giving it a grace and luster as elegant as viper wine does to consumptive persons and worn out prostitutes.”

Many an ill-disposed Englishman on Jamaica went to the Cayman Islands during the turtling season to recover his health by feasting on turtle. As a cure for scurvy and relief from the monotony of a hardtack and salt-beef diet, the meat was much prized by explorers, merchantmen, and buccaneers. The great clumsy creatures were abundant, easy to catch, and most important in the tropical heat, able to be kept alive on the decks of ships for weeks. The late Archie Carr (1973) suggested that the green turtle more than any other dietary factor supported the opening up of the Caribbean. It seems to have played a similar role in the Indian Ocean. William Dampier, that rough seaman who, Oliver Goldsmith observed, added more to natural history than half the philosophers who went before him, made repeated and extensive references to sea turtles as a shipboard meat reserve in his Voyages, written between 1681 and 1688 (Dampier 1906). In his eyes, the eggs were for natives.

Learning from the Miskito

The coastal Miskito are the world’s foremost sea turtle people (Carr 1973; Nietschmann 1973, 1979). The coral cays and shelf off their Nicaraguan home coast are the principal feeding ground for green turtles from the renowned Tortuguero rookery, some 200 miles to the south in Costa Rica. Under subsistence exploitation regulated by local Miskito communities with strong cultural, religious, and economic ties to the species, the population remained stable. But with commercialization, first by Cayman Islanders who had seen the turtles of their own island decimated, and then by other foreign interests, extraction rates became excessive. Yet this coast, between Cape Gracias a Dios and Bluefields, still supports the largest remaining population of greens, and also hawksbills, in the Caribbean. With the recent establishment of the Miskito Coast Protected Area, there is prospect for a return to culturally regulated exploitation after a long period of overuse (Nietschmann 1991).

The Miskito may have taught the English to appreciate turtle. As early as 1633, a trading station had been established among the Miskitos at Cape Gracias a Dios by English adventurers from the Puritan colony at Old Providence Island. From the beginning, relations between natives and traders were amicable, encouraging a sort of symbiotic relationship that was nurtured in part by mutual antagonism toward the Spaniard. The Indians, superb boatmen, had an “eye” for turtles that never ceased to amaze the Europeans. Many an English and Dutch pirate vessel carried at least one Miskito man as a “striker” to harpoon turtle for the mess table. “Their chief employment in their own country,” wrote Dampier,

is to strike fish, turtle, and manatee … for this they are esteemed by all privateers, for one or two of them in a ship will maintain 100 men, so that when we careen our ships we choose commonly places where there is plenty of turtle or manatee for these Miskito men to strike; it is very rare to find privateers without one or more of them. (Dampier 1906, 1: 39)

Caymanian turtlers were working the Miskito shore by at least 1837. From Grand Cayman, turtle boats could reach the cays in three or four days. The turtlers assembled their catch at temporary camps in the cays, carrying them north at the end of the season to be kept in “crawls” until marketed. From 2,000 to 4,000 turtles were taken annually. (A turtle-soup cannery was established in Grand Cayman in 1952 by the Colonial Development Corporation, but it closed after one year.) When, in 1967, this traditional arrangement with the Caymanian turtlers was terminated by the Somoza government and turtling rights were granted to higher bidders, the extraction rate soared to an insupportable 10,000 a year. By 1979, international conservation pressure had forced the Nicaraguan government to shut down the turtle companies and to ban further commercial exploitation (Nietschmann 1993).

Turtle was in as great demand as a slave food in the West Indian colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as was salt cod from Newfoundland. But the reptile was also enjoyed by the West Indian white aristocracy. It was considered a special delicacy when eaten fresh. “To eat this animal is the highest perfection,” wrote Goldsmith (1825: 164), “instead of bringing the turtle to the epicure, he ought to be transported to the turtle.” Janet Schaw, describing her visit to Antigua in the 1770s, wrote:

I have now seen turtle almost every day, and though I never could eat it at home, am vastly fond of it here, where it is indeed a very different thing. You get nothing but old ones there [London], the “chickens” being unable to stand the voyage; and even these are starved, or at best fed on coarse and improper food. Here they are young, tender, fresh from the water, where they feed as delicately and are as great epicures as those who feed on them. (Schaw 1939: 95)

The special quality of turtle soup was said to be that it did not “cloy.” In other words, one could eat almost any quantity without ill effects. Its easily assimilated proteins, without carbohydrate or fat, were proclaimed to prepare the stomach in superb fashion for what was to come. When banquets started with this soup, the diner was considered best able to enjoy the numerous rich dishes to follow. Goldsmith wrote that turtle “has become a favorite food of those who are desirous of eating a great deal without surfeiting. … by the importation of it alone among us, gluttony is freed from one of its greatest restraints” (1825: 674). The soup, flavored with sherry, capsicums, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg, and served piping hot, was considered at its fiery best “when, after having eaten, one is obliged to rest with his mouth wide open, and cool the fevered palate with Madeira or Port” (Simmonds 1883: 366). In 20 years in the West Indies, one doctor professed, he had never heard of an “accident” arising from eating it! It was also held to be an ideal food for convalescents, especially when served in jellied form.

The Dutch, although they partook of it, seem to have been rather indifferent to turtle in the East, perhaps because of their close association with the Malays, who avoided the meat. In the West, the French, while interested, found but a limited supply of green turtle available to them, most of the best turtling grounds being under English control. From the seventeenth-century account of Père Labat, a Dominican monk, it is evident that the animal’s merits were not unrecognized. Yet it did not rate so much as a mention in Brillat-Savarin’s exhaustive Physiologie du gout, written in 1825. For the French,turtle was clearly an English dish.

Spanish Disdain for Turtle

As rivalry between Spain and England intensified, Spanish disdain for what the English considered among the finest of foods heightened. Dampier (1906, 2: 399), describing the turtles found on the Brazilian coast, wrote in 1699:

neither the Spaniards nor Portuguese lov(e) them; Nay they have a great antipathy against them, and would rather eat a porpoise, tho’ our English count the green turtle very extraordinary food. The reason that is commonly given in the West Indies for the Spaniards not caring to eat them is the fear they have lest, being usually foul-bodied, and many of them pox’d (lying as they do so promiscuously with their Negrines and other She-slaves), they should break out loathsomely like lepers; which this sort of food, ’tis said, does much incline men to do, searching the body and driving out any such gross humours.

Richard Walter, writing in 1748 while with Lord George Anson on his voyage around the world, thought it strange, considering the scarcity of provisions on the Pacific coast of Central America,

that a species of food so very palatable and salubrious as turtle should be proscribed by the Spaniards as unwholesome and little less than poisonous. Perhaps the strange appearance of this animal may have been the foundation of this ridiculous and superstitious aversion, which is strongly rooted in all of the inhabitants of this coast. (Walter 1928: 208)

Of the Indians and Negroes (slaves of the Spaniards) who had been taken as prizes in Peru,Walter noted:

These poor people, being possessed with the prejudices of the country they came from, were astonished at our feeding on turtle and seemed fully persuaded that it would soon destroy us. … it was with great reluctance and very sparingly that they first began to eat it; but the relish improving upon them by degrees, they at last grew extremely fond of it, and preferred it to every other kind of food. … a food more luxurious to the palate than any their haughty Lords and Masters could indulge in. (Walter 1928: 288)

The Spaniards’ apparent lack of interest in turtle appears in part a reaction to the close identification of it with the rival and hated English. In his study of Old World food prejudices, Frederick Simoons (1994) has shown the frequency with which particular animals or foods have become identified with particular ethnic, religious, or other groups through the course of history. The tendency to identify peoples with distinctive food habits is only a step from the rejection of foods simply because they are associated with a rival group. Pastoralists’ rejection of the pig, an animal closely associated with and symbolic of the settled farmer, is an extreme, but by no means isolated, example of this sort of attitude.

The London Turtle Trade

Although the virtues of turtle had long been familiar to West Indian planters and to men of the sea, its introduction to the tables of London came only in the mid-eighteenth century. The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1753 and 1754 carried several notices of large sea turtles, brought from Ascension Island and the West Indies, being dressed at public houses in London. One of the turtles was brought by Lord Anson. At the Kings Arms tavern in Pall Mall, the door of the oven had to be taken down to admit the plastron of a 350-pound specimen. “It may be noted,” it was observed, “that what is common in the West Indies is a luxury here” (Anon. 1753: 489).

Although these were certainly not the first live green turtles seen in England, they were of sufficient rarity to gain newspaper comment.”Of all the improvements in the modern kitchen,” said the World in an account of a London banquet at about this time, “there are none that can bear a comparison with the introduction of the turtle” (quoted in Notes and Queries, 1884 [6th ser., 9: 114-15]). But Dr. Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary (1775), tersely defined “turtle” as a term “used among sailors and gluttons for a tortoise.”

As English demand increased, vessels in the West Indian trade were provided with flat wooden tanks in which live turtles could be deck-loaded. Although they were fed grass and banana leaves on the journey, after arrival at the Leadenhall Street turtle tanks they still had to be fattened before reaching the tables of the well-to-do. The largest, which were not necessarily the best, were often destined for the royal palace. For the less affluent there already were substitutes. As early as 1808, Mrs. Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper was offering a recipe for “artificial” or mock turtle soup made from a calf’s head.

Steamships greatly facilitated the movement of live turtles across the Atlantic. Imports of “preserved turtle” from Jamaica were initiated in 1841. The turtles had been taken by Cayman Islanders and, thus, by British subjects. By 1880 imports of “prepared turtle” were listed as 10,800 pounds. This was apparently the designation applied to the sun-dried meat and calipee that in late years had begun to place turtle soup, by one account, “within the reach of the general consumer.” But it was to remain preeminently a prestige food. Mrs. Isabella Beeton called turtle soup “the most expensive soup brought to the table,” with 1 guinea the standard price for a quart of it. Her widely read Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management states:

The price of live turtle ranges from 8d. to 2s. per pound, according to supply and demand. When live turtle is dear, many cooks use the tinned turtle, which is killed when caught, preserved by being put into hermetically sealed canisters, and so sent over to England. (Beeton 1861: 178-80)

The Queen of Soups

“Turtle soup from Painter’s Ship & Turtle on Leaden-hall Street,” wrote one observer at the end of the nineteenth century, “is decidedly the best thing in the shape of soup that can be had in this, or perhaps any other country.”Located there, he asserted, was the only “turtle artist” in Europe (Hayward 1899: 24-5). A French visitor described the establishment in 1904. A large pool of water contained upwards of 50 turtles awaiting “sacrifice.”Alongside was the slaughter room and next to it the kitchen, where 10 to 12 men were occupied in making this national soup, which was sent out each day to the city, to the provinces, and even to foreign markets. It brought the exorbitant price of 1 guinea per liter for the regular soup and 25 shillings for the clear soup. A bowl of turtle soup served in the restaurant cost 3 shillings, the price including the glass of punch that followed it (Suzanne 1904: 15).

Blending and seasoning were of the greatest importance in soup making and called for much experience and “know-how.” Some cooks insisted that the fins and steak or inside red muscle meat of the turtle were chiefly responsible for the flavor, and that genuine “real turtle soup” (the sort that jelled of its own accord on cooling) was properly made only from a broth of turtle meat. To this, diced calipee was added as a relish. Others, especially in London, regarded beef stock as an essential basis of the soup, holding that without it turtle soup tended to lack character. In this they claimed the support of the famous Maître Chef Auguste Escoffier.

Tinned turtle products entered midlatitude markets about the middle of the nineteenth century. Some of the first canneries were located within the tropics, close to sources of supply such as one at Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua. Another in Key West, Florida, employing 10 vessels and 60 men for turtle gathering, was reported in 1880 to be turning out 200,000 cases a year. The “green fat,” or calipee, was often tinned separately from the meat and soup. It was once customary to serve it as a side dish, a spoonful being added to the soup if desired. The largest shipments of tinned turtle products were to London, but New York was a substantial secondary market. Although turtle canneries operated from time to time in Jamaica, Nicaragua, Grand Cayman, Mexico, Australia, North Borneo, and Kenya, they were short-lived ventures. In later years, until forced cessation of the trade, the larger share of the green-turtle soup and red meat that went into cans was processed either in the New York area or in London.

The leading London soup maker, John Lusty, Ltd., “By Appointment Purveyors of Real Turtle Soup to the Royal Household since the Reign of Edward VII,” had been in business near the London docks and Greenwich Naval Base since at least 1851 (long before the reign of Edward VII). Captains of Royal Navy ships returning from the West Indies or Ascension Island often brought back live green turtles and desired that they be made into soup for presentation to “My Lords of the Admiralty,” who prized it as a great delicacy. The West Indies was the principal source of Lusty’s supply.

After World War II, however, few live turtles were imported, the animals being slaughtered and refrigerated at the port of shipment. In its last years in business Lusty’s supplies (mostly frozen) came from Kenya and the Seychelles. For Bender & Cassel, Ltd., the other major London producer, the Cayman Islands provided the supplies. It was at this time that a substantial demand for green turtle soup developed on the Continent. It became a standard feature on the menus of luxury restaurants, particularly in the larger cities and tourist centers of Germany, the Low Countries, and, to a lesser extent, France. There were canning operations in West Germany, France, Denmark, and Switzerland. For most of these concerns the Indian Ocean seems to have been the principal source of supply.

In the United States, the dominant company in the green-turtle and turtle-soup business was Moore & Company Soups, Inc., of Newark, New Jersey (“Ancora” brand), formerly located in Manhattan. It had begun making turtle soup in 1883. Initially, the turtles arrived at the port of New York deck-loaded on banana boats; later they were trucked, turned on their backs, from Tampa or Key West. In the early 1960s, an average of two truckloads a week arrived at the Newark plant, where they were held in a pond until slaughtered. If frozen, the carcasses were placed in refrigerators.

The End of an Era

In 1962 I hazarded the guess that between 15,000 and 20,000 green turtles a year were finding their way, in one form or another, to the commercial markets of North America and Europe. The guess included those animals slaughtered on the Indian Ocean islands and elsewhere exclusively for their calipee. Although the aristocracy was consuming less turtle soup than in times past, the market had been immensely broad-ened. What was once reserved for the epicures of London and New York had become available on the shelves of quality grocery stores throughout Europe and America. The implications of such an expanding demand in the midlatitudes, coupled with the growing population of the tropical world, seemed ominous.

But today, with most nations of the world signatory parties to CITES, international commerce in turtles and turtle products has all but ceased, although the animals continue to be exploited on a limited scale by traditional coastal populations, and turtle meat or eggs may be marketed clandestinely. Egg collecting may be permitted under restraining community rules, as at the important olive ridley nesting beach at Ostional on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica or at the Sarawak Turtle Islands. But in Mexico, perhaps most conspicuously in sparsely settled Baja California, illegal poaching for commercial purposes remains widespread. In that country turtle eggs, as well as the penis of the reptile, are prized for their presumed aphrodisiac qualities.

At Mexico’s Rancho Nuevo beach (on the Tamaulipas coast), famed for the massive synchronous nesting emergences (arribadas) of the rare Kemp’s ridleys, eggs for a time were removed to a protected hatchery within hours of being laid to avoid depredation by coyotes, shore birds, and humans. Under a U.S.-Mexico cooperative “head start” program, hatchlings were transferred in large numbers to Texas beaches in the hope of imprinting them and establishing new rook-eries (Rancho Nuevo is the lone known Kemp’s ridley beach in the world). But the project did not produce the hoped-for results and was finally abandoned as futile (Marine Turtle Newsletter 1993: October, 63).

A film made in 1950 of the Tamaulipas arribada showed some 40,000 females storming the beach in daylight hours, but the same beach today supports fewer than 1,000 nesters in a season. Apparently the entire world stock of Kemp’s ridleys has been severely depleted in the interim, many trapped and damaged in the trawls of commercial shrimpers (Cornelius 1990). Presently large arribadas of the vastly more abundant olive ridley turtle occur at one remaining Mexican West Coast beach and at others in Costa Rica and India. The phenomenon, one of the most spectacular examples of mass activity in the animal kingdom, is especially characteristic of the two ridleys. At least three Mexican arribada sites had been eliminated by commercial fishermen before government restrictions began to be enforced. An estimated 2 million turtles were slaughtered on the West Coast of Mexico, more to meet demands for leather than for meat, in the five years leading up to 1969, before efforts were made to rationalize the harvest with catch quotas (Cornelius 1990: 54; Marine Turtle Newsletter 1991: April, 53). The India site, in Orissa State on the Bay of Bengal, of which the scientific world has only recently become aware, is reported to support arribadas of up to 200,000 ridleys, presumably in a single season. Despite the fact that much of the site is within a wildlife reserve, thousands of illegal takings occur offshore annually. The extent to which eggs are collected is unclear. The excessive harvest of eggs has been identified as one of the most important factors causing the decline of sea turtle populations.

In the Caribbean area, turtle deaths have increased with the intensified activities of shrimp trawlers in recent years (National Research Council 1990). Strandings of dead loggerheads on Florida beaches from this cause (13,000 in a recent year, with a small number of greens) have been sharply reduced by the Turtle Exclusionary Devices (TEDs) now required on the U.S. trawler fleet. Extension of their use to other nations is being urged. The ingestion of plastic bags, debris, and toxic substances such as petroleum further contributes to turtle mortality. Tourism and turtles, too, are on a collision course in several places. Coastal resort development and other forms of habitat encroachment deny nesting turtles their habitual nesting localities, as does the increasing artificial lighting along coastlines, to which the greens seem especially sensitive.

Gastronomy or Ecotourism?

Captive breeding programs for the more valued greens and hawksbills have been generally unsuccessful. The Cayman Islands Turtle Farm, established in 1968 as Mariculture, Ltd., for a time raised greens in tanks for export to commercial processors. In the face of CITES restrictions, it has been converted to a successful educational and tourist attraction. Production of meat (and perhaps eggs) continues on a reduced scale for local island consumption. The U.S. market has been closed since 1978, as, increasingly, are those of other countries (Wood 1991; Fosdick and Fosdick 1994). Provision for trade in farmed turtles continues to be sought, but the pressure against any trading in species whose wild populations are endangered or threatened is substantial. Sea turtle research, including the tagging and release of hatchlings and yearlings, has been an additional feature of the farm’s activities. In recent years, farms have sought to be self-sustaining, independent of wild stocks of eggs or wild breeding turtles. The animals are fed twice daily with a high-protein, pelletized Purina Turtle Chow. They are slaughtered at 4 years of age, at 20 to 30 kilograms.

If sea turtles have a future it seems likely to be in ecotourism rather than gastronomy. They are featured on the flag, seal, currency, and postage stamps of the Cayman Islands, reflecting their close association with the islands and their presumed emotional appeal to potential visitors. Elsewhere, too, as in Florida, in Costa Rica, on the Great Barrier Reef, and on some islands of the Aegean Sea, “turtle watching” is becoming a featured tourist attraction.

The groundswell of concern for the future of sea turtles that has put all but the Australian flatback on the endangered species lists has led to a surge in scientific research on the animals and on the causes and consequences of their decline (Bjorndal 1981; National Research Council 1990). Representative of this effort are the activities of the Marine Turtle Specialty Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Marine Turtle Newsletter, a comprehensive quarterly now published in both English and Spanish by the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute of San Diego, California. So are the symposia on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation, which are annual workshops devoted to these questions.

Realization of the seriousness of the plight of sea turtles, underscored by the CITES trade restrictions, has led to the effective elimination of turtle steaks, turtle soup, and turtle eggs from the tables of all but a handful of tropical developing countries. We are losing, as a consequence, a palatable and nutritious marine food of unique cultural and historical significance. Turtle meat is remarkably lean, with 5 percent of calories in fat compared to 40 for most meats (James Stewart, M.D., personal communication).The eggs are comparable to chicken or duck eggs in protein content and are rich in vitamin A (Simoons 1991: 366-7). Both the world of gastronomy and the lives of many coastal populations of the tropics are being significantly impoverished as turtle and turtle products, a primary source of red meat and protein, are being forced from menus by the excessive pressures of commercialization as well as by the relentless increase in human numbers.