Mexico: A Gringo, a Town, and Its Turtles

for Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

(Click here for original article)

When Hoyt Peckham first arrived on the sprawling flat beaches of Magdalena Bay, Mexico, in 2001, what he saw was one of the most stunning surf beaches he had ever encountered. Lonely stretches of pristine barrier island sand stretched on for 20 miles with picture-perfect lines of waves crashing in neat rows.

“I had never seen anything like it,” he told me last year, while touring the beach. “I mean just look at that. It’s like something out of a movie, right?”

Peckham, then a wandering underwater cameraman who styled himself as a sort of nuevo-Jacques Cousteau, thought he was in heaven. What he soon learned, though, was that this paradise had a dark secret.

He was there with Wallace “J.” Nichols of the California Academy of Sciences to investigate reports from a local fisherman that turtles were washing up on shore in record numbers. They learned that this 20-mile beach was among the most lethal stretches of sand for turtles in the world. The entire Hawaiian fishing fleet is allowed to kill just 17 loggerhead sea turtles as accidental bycatch per year. In a single day, twice as many turtles wash up on this Baja shore.

The reason was not some devious corporate pollution, but rather the local small-scale fisherman from the nearby town of Adolfo López Mateos, who fish for shark, halibut, and other valuable seafood. It just so happened that they were doing their work on top of a critical turtle feeding ground, where the animals fatten themselves up for as much as 20 years before crossing the ocean to breed. If they are caught and killed before they breed, the population just continues to shrink. In many ways, the entire Pacific population of loggerhead turtles may be hinging on this tiny beach.

So for the next ten years, Peckham burrowed into the community. He made friends with everyone in town, especially the fishermen, sleeping in sparse camps for months at a time, drinking with them and talking fishing. In town he created a turtle festival, complete with a beauty pageant and a “turtle queen.” He hired former turtle hunters to be spokespeople and even brought fishermen from Magdalena Bay to Hawaii and Japan for conferences and hosted foreigners in a local villa. And everywhere in town you see his “tortugueros,” kids who have helped paint murals, tag turtles for research, and invited him to their classrooms.

Then last year, everything changed. In his most ambitious project, Peckham (now a Ph.D in marine biology) had cooked up a plan to change the entire fleet from turtle-killing gill nets to turtle-safe hook-and-line fishing gear. He raised enough money and it seemed like the community was solidly behind him. But one day he was walking through the town where most of the fishermen live and he heard someone on the loudspeaker saying his name. He walked over and saw two men who ran a corrupt fishing co-operative talking to people on the street. They said Peckham was an eco-terrorist who hated fishermen and that his family (from New England) liked to kill Mexicans crossing the border.

Peckham had been working in the community for a decade and couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Even more ironic was that one of the speakers was wearing the turtle T-shirt Peckham had given him.

“I should have gotten up right then on stage and shouted them down,” he says. “But decided to take the high road. I thought if I just ignore them it would go away.”

It didn’t go away. Almost overnight, the town turned against him. His tortugueros disappeared and his remaining friends were shunned. People in the street challenged him to fights and made not-so-veiled threats on his life. According to several former fishermen who work with Peckham, no one actually believed the claims. It was just that he was still technically an outsider in a tiny town in which it takes generations to blend in.

Peckham backed off and scaled way back. But those who joined now had “turtle-safe” fish, which theoretically sell at a premium. What if he could use that to lure others? Over the next two years, they trained and equiped fishermen and even built a modest plant to process their more-valuable catch. Most importantly, they planned to install cameras on boats to ensure no gill nets were used.

The program was set to go into effect this year when Peckham hit yet another snag. Out of the blue, the government announced that it would be enforcing a previous ban on shark fishing. Since sharks are the region’s most lucrative fish, the fishermen were up in arms, suspecting government conspiracies to put them out of work. This got even worse when a government research vessel was spotted off shore. Suddenly the idea of putting cameras on their boats smacked of Big Brother and the town got nervous. And then, one fisherman, who had never wanted to do the project in the first place, held a meeting in his house and that was it.

“One guy is all it takes,” says Jimena Betancourt, who has worked alongside Peckham in the town. “These fisherman live day-to-day and they don’t want to risk what they have. It’s hard for them to have a long-term vision.”

Peckham is more direct.

“The irony of this whole thing is the one time the government does get involved, they overturn a decade of hard work,” he says.

So where does that leave the turtles? Well, thanks to Grupo Tortuguero, people in town now see their turtles as a special resource to be cherished. But in the end, all the same incentives still drive them to overfish and kill turtles as the regulators stand by.

As for Peckham, after almost 11 years in this town, he’s disillusioned about López Mateos and a little heartbroken. Now working with Stanford University, he’s used similar approaches in Japan and people are responding far better. But his heart is still very much in Baja. But without a way to change either the nets or the pay structure for the fish, essentially they are in the same place as when Peckham arrived.

“There’s no official governance there at all. No law whatsoever,” Hoyt says sadly, sitting in his boat in nearby La Paz. “And so people have grown up in this environment and are fundamentally distrustful because they have all been screwed over. And as a result they have all screwed people over. So that community is really, really difficult to work in.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated Oct. 4, 2012