Turning Turtle
Turtle Fishermen of Baja California Turn Conservationists

Wallace J. Nichols with carl safina

sea turtle in net

Turtles are placed in nets to be weighed, then released. The data help conservationists
keep track of the animals’ health.

photo: teri garland

Isidro Arce is a tall, quiet man. He speaks with the authority of one who knows he is right and who has his feet set firmly on the earth.

His friend, Javier Villavicencio, is not quiet. His words come at you fast and fill the air with passionate arguments: why we should have mercy for the animals, deep respect for the seas, and more care for our coastal waters.

Both men are leaders in the grassroots Grupo Tortuguero, a group of fishermen who monitor the turtle population at seven critical locations on the Baja California peninsula.

They harvest local fish and lobster yet work to prevent the extinction of the creatures inhabiting these waters.

Off Punta Abreojos

Twelve kilometers offshore of Punta Abreojos there is an underwater ridge at 40 fathoms. Isidro and I are in his fishing panga, floating above it. From here we drop a dozen traps baited with mackerel. When we’ve set the last trap, we return to the first and pull it up. The traps are already filled with verdillo, a medium-sized sea bass. Everything that is not verdillo or is undersized is thrown back. We repeat the circuit several times. Pull the trap. Add bait. Drop the trap.

We’ve had a good morning and reached our quota quickly.

Isidro says, “This area is very productive. We come out here to fish, to supplement our lobstering and abalone. It’s easy to catch fish, but we also take care of this reef.”

This means taking only the day’s limit of verdillo, lobster, or abalone; throwing back small fish and lobsters ready to lay; and leaving undersized abalone on the rocks to grow.

“If we do this now, we’ll always have something for the future. Our kids can live the way we live. And so can their kids.”

Isidro starts the motor and turns the boat towards the panga of a nearby comrade. We pull alongside.

Que ondas, compa?”

Nada, nada. Mas o menos,” comes the reply.

Isidro begins tossing our extra verdillo into the other panga so that his friend can go home to his family early.

This camaraderie and community cohesiveness is what keeps these waters productive. This past year the federation of fishing cooperatives that Punta Abreojos belongs to had its lobster catch certified “sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council—the first fishery in Latin America to earn this sought after eco-label.

Small fish, small lobster, small abalone—and the waters they live in— are guarded so that the animals will grow large enough to reproduce. So that the cold Pacific currents will run clean. So that there are fish, lobster, and abalone for people now and in the future.

Estero Coyote

I’ve arrived at the edge of Estero Coyote after midnight. When I flick off the headlights, only starlight reflects off the water.

My VHF radio crackles. It’s Isidro on the other end at the tent camp, with Javier and Miguel Valenzuela, the fishing cooperative biologist, by his side. Tonight, they’ve set their nets for sea turtles.

The estero is a small bay—one of eight official sea turtle monitoring sites along the Baja Peninsula. Fishermen and scientists work together to catch, tag, measure, and release turtles once a month. Over the years this will yield valuable data about population trends. It also provides information on these endangered and culturally important animals.

Isidro, Javier, and Miguel are proud that their sea turtles are coming back. They pin the recovery to the newfound ethos that guides their fishing—take only what you need, protect what should be protected, self-enforce within the community, and teach it all to the children.

Soon I hear the high hum of the panga’s motor from across the shallow beds of seagrass, and mangrove mazes. I wade through the mudflat shallows, hop into the bow, and we move back out.

Before we reach the camp we stop to inspect the turtle nets. They’re exactly the same as the ones used by scores of turtle poachers up and down the coast. The black-tarred nylon webs hang like a pair of curtains across the channel, perpendicular to the tidal current.
At other turtle monitoring sites it can take anywhere from twelve hours to three days to catch a single sea turtle. But Estero Coyote is rich and productive. In the time it took to swing around the bay to pick me up, four more turtles entangled themselves in the twelve-inch mesh.

The record here at the Punta Abreojos sea turtle monitoring site is 40 turtles tagged in 24 hours. Today, we’re on pace to break that record. Working fast, we clamp numbered tags on the rear flippers, measure the lengths of the carapaces, and lift the animals to get a weight. The largest is nearly 150 pounds.

I have been working with my colleagues in the Grupo Tortuguero to conserve sea turtles in Mexico for about twelve years. Now, we’re starting to see real results. More fishermen are involved, new local organizations are participating, government support has increased—and more turtles are surviving. But there’s still a long way to go.

Once freed, the four turtles glide away into the dark warm water, leaving bioluminescent coils in their wake. They are the angels of this bay.

Punta Abreojos Elementary School

It’s sea turtle day at Punta Abreojos Elementary School. Every white-uniformed kid in town is packed into the auditorium. Isidro is beaming like a lighthouse.
When he’s not fishing, or enforcing fishery regulations in the community, Isidro is dreaming up new ways to teach the children.

“I was thinking that the kids use pencils, right? They hold pencils all day. So I made 1,000 pencils with the message SAVE THE SEA TURTLES—DON’T EAT SEA TURTLES!”

He shows me one of the thousand, a bright red sea turtle conservation tool. I look around. All of the kids have one.

Isidro stands at the back of the room as one by one, the students make well-rehearsed presentations on sea turtle conservation, biology, anatomy, biodiversity and habitats.

San Ignacio, Baja California Sur

The International Travelall 4x4 was overloaded, overworked, overheated under the desert sun. It’d lost a wheel and an axle and most of the brake assembly. At a shade-granting structure surrounded by an acre of rusted parts from wrecked trucks like this one, I met Francisco “Gordo” Fisher for the first time.

Though named after Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals, he’s responsible for the deaths of many thousands of sea turtles. Gordo set turtle nets for about 20 years. He made a bundle of cash lifting lobster, abalone and sea turtles, legally and illegally, from the waters surrounding Punta Abreojos.

Gordo sat on a bench seat ripped from another deceased truck, drinking 36-ounce bottles of Mexican-brewed Tecate beer known as caguama, after the sea turtle. We sat across from him on the edge of a tire and talked to pass the time.

Topics turned from trucks to fishing, then to sea turtles. Gordo bragged about his prowess in catching turtles of all sizes—and selling them. As Gordo got drunk, we took notes. According to his own estimate, he regularly caught more than 1,000 turtles each year.

In 1990, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari made catching, transporting, eating, selling and harming sea turtles a federal offense punishable by jail and steep fines. Thus, by presidential decree, Gordo’s job title changed from turtle catcher to poacher overnight. The decree made provisions to develop alternative sources of income for local persons economically dependent on the exploitation of these species.

But within a few years the turtle business went underground. Largely due to continuing national and international demand for sea turtle products, the trade joined the back-roads and greased palms of other black markets such as narcotics trafficking and arms smuggling.

Gordo, a successful sea turtle fisherman, joined the seamy turtle poaching business. After catching the turtles with long gill nets, he bundled them into the backs of trucks or buses and smuggled them north over backroads to buyers in Tijuana and Ensenada. Bribes and walkie-talkies ensured safe passage through countless military checkpoints. But the risk was worth it: one turtle could fetch up to US$500.

El Cereso Prison, La Paz

When I heard Gordo was in prison, I suggested to Javier that he visit his childhood friend.

Gordo had been arrested four times. The first three times, he got off lightly. But in 2000, soldiers found seven turtles in his car while he was crossing the desert in the night. For that, he got six months in el bote. If he could get out, he told Javier, he would change. He’d give back to the oceans, instead of stripping its waters. Gordo agreed then to tell his story of corrupt officials bribes, and politicians feasting on endangered species, to the public.

San Ignacio, Baja California Sur

Having just spent six months in jail, Gordo is savoring his freedom—sort of. He seems chastened and a little stunned because the freedom he most savored—the catching and selling of sea turtles—is now off the table.

“It’s really hard for me.” He speaks in a surprisingly soft voice. “I’m used to money and good cars.” He has a large face and gentle eyes. “The fishermen’s cooperative wants the worst for me. They know I’m a threat to the future of their children.”

The turtle business was all illegal, sure, but it was not difficult to evade the authorities.

Were drugs involved?

“Of course. Often as payment.”

What does a turtle catcher need to know?

“A good turtle catcher must know how to find turtles. This is not easy. They are very astute, one of the most astute animals in the ocean. Not just anyone can catch them. You must know where they swim, how they swim, how they use the currents. I had to study them. I put many hours on my boat engine learning their ways. In summer, they come into lagoons to be in warm water for feeding. In winter, they travel toward the ocean as the water along shore cools. You must know their routes.”


Gordo has come to Tijuana to speak with the international press. Radio, TV and newspaper reporters wish to hear what he had to say.

“When I was boy, we all ate caguama. It was normal, it wasn’t a problem.”

Gordo learned to catch turtles from his father at age 13. Even after the government banned the catch, he kept working, setting his nets in Laguna San Ignacio and the Pacific Ocean. For years, nobody denounced him, and he made good, easy money.

“Local residents helped me with my contraband, to load the cars—even the municipal police assisted me,” he says. He made crucial contacts with powerful buyers in Tijuana and Ensenada, along the U.S. border.

It was in jail that he began to change, he says, after Javier’s visit. “I decided it’s not worth having problems, and problems, and problems,” Gordo explains.

After his release, Gordo tells the reporters, he got a job cleaning lobsters in his hometown, San Ignacio. He made up to $30 a day, a fraction of what he once earned.

Poaching continues in Baja California communities, Gordo says, but without him in charge, poaching has dropped off in San Ignacio Lagoon. Now he talks about saving sea turtles—and setting a better example for the younger generation.

Mexico City, Televisa studio

Javier, Gordo, and I are on the set of the nation’s highest rated morning news program: Televisa’s Hechos de la Manana. As the scientist, I set up the biological context and the conservation imperative, while Javier prepped the interviewer with background information about our work. Gordo, wearing a sea turtle conservation t-shirt, leaned back in his chair. Then he stole the show.

For 20 minutes, millions of viewers from Chihuahua to Chiapas forgot their plates of huevos rancheros as they listened to Gordo’s uncensored stories. Few would dare discuss these matters on live national Mexican television: powerful politicians dining on endangered species; veiled bribes; trails of corruption connecting sea to soup pot. But Gordo was on a roll. Four times the producer had to give the stunned cameraman the “keep filming” signal.

Something shifted in the air as Gordo described his past. He spoke without fear, as if confessing a lifetime of sins to the Pope himself. In this public confessional a convicted turtle poacher found reconciliation and spoke up to save sea turtles from extinction.

In the afternoon, Gordo visited La Basilica de Guadalupe. To pray, he said.

Wallace J. Nichols is a Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences, founder of Grupo Tortuguero and co-Director of Ocean Revolution.

Carl Safina is President of the Blue Ocean Institute and an adjunct professor at the State University of New York at Stonybrook.