Officially, more than 200 turtles died during a troubling three-week span that began in late September, the Ministerio de Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (MARN) reported late last month, writes Benjamin Witte-Lebhar for Latin America Data Base.
Environmental groups suspect the real number of turtle deaths is higher still. Most of the dead animals were olive ridley and green turtles, according to MARN. Two other sea turtle species, leatherbacks and hawksbills, are also present in El Salvador.
MARN believes the cause of the problem is red tide, a toxic algae bloom that has been present the past few months off Central America’s western coastline. Researchers at the Universidad de El Salvador (UES) confirmed the government’s theory by testing approximately a dozen deceased turtles.
The animals were found to contain high levels of saxitoxin, a powerful neurotoxin associated with algae blooms.
However, not everyone is convinced by the government’s red-tide theory. Some conservation groups suspect that shrimp trawlers may be the real culprit behind the die-off.
El Salvador’s fisheries authority, the Centro de Desarrollo de la Pesca y la Acuicultura (CENDEPESCA), has imposed regulations designed to protect turtles. Bottom-trawling shrimp boats must keep a minimum distance from the shoreline.
They are also required to use a turtle excluder device, or TED, which functions as an escape hatch for trapped turtles. CENDEPESCA says it carries out regular TED inspections. EL Salvador’s fishing industry, furthermore, has been certified for eight years running by the US Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), CENDEPESCA points out.
Critics of the industry, however, say not all boats comply with the regulations, which are imperfect at best and difficult to enforce.
"It’s illogical that [the government] blames red tide when the turtles are showing up dead precisely during trawling season," biodiversity specialist Rafael Vela of the Centro de Estudios de Tecnología Apropiada (CESTA), a San Salvador-based environmental group, told the daily Co Latino.
Vela accuses CENDEPESCA of "passing the buck," saying it should do its own research on the turtle deaths rather than rely solely on MARN’s theories and conclusions. "No one wants to find the real reason behind the sea turtle deaths," he said.
"Water pollution and incidental capture seem to be the most explicable causes, but nobody wants to carry out real studies along those lines."