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Saving Turtles, One Egg at a Time

As the story goes, a storm washed thousands of starfish onto the beach leaving them to die if they didn’t somehow get back into the water. A young boy, worried about their fate, begins throwing starfish back into the ocean one at a time. An older man approaches the young boy and says, “There are too many. You can’t make a difference.” The young boy holds a starfish in the air, looks at the older man, throws the starfish into the ocean and says, “It made a difference to that one.”

Today, another optimist – Lone Star College–Tomball Human and Social Services Program Director Stephen Haberman – is daring to make a difference by saving sea turtle eggs in El Salvador, one by one.

It was just last May that Haberman first visited Meanguera, a tiny volcano-formed island located off of southern tip of El Salvador in the Gulf of Fonseca. He was immediately drawn to the quaint community, but grew concerned about the inhabitants’ dependence on sea turtle eggs and what it meant for the turtles’ – as well as the citizens’ – sustainability.

“These island inhabitants have very little in the way of modern things. They live off of the land and the ocean – which includes eggs from sea turtles. But the problem with that is that the ocean has been depleted within the last 25 years or so and there will come a time very soon that these turtles become extinct and this food and income source for them will disappear” says Haberman.

Olive Ridleys, the most common sea turtle in El Salvador, along with Leatherbacks, and Hawksbills, laid nearly 40,000 eggs during the nesting season (July through October) last year on the shores of Meanguera Island.

“And every single egg was harvested for sale to food vendors or was eaten,” says Haberman.

The key to preserving the eggs and turtle population is to develop a new food source to replace their dependence on these eggs, says Haberman. And in order to help develop additional food sources on the island, as well as a turtle conservation project, Haberman has enlisted some help.

El Salvadorian Attorney Joaqin Batres, founder of the environmental conservation and eco-tourism group, Ruta del Zapamiche, “frequents the island and is familiar with their people and customs,” and Lone Star College–Tomball Co-Coordinator of Biology and Geology Labs Heather Herrick was commissioned “to develop the turtle hatchery to help preserve the eggs until they successfully hatch more turtles,” says Haberman.

“We currently have a small hatchery of about 1,500 eggs and our goal is to have 25,000 to 50,000 eggs,” says Herrick, a biologist. “This is a great opportunity to increase the population of these three severely endangered turtle species – the Olive Ridleys, the Leatherbacks, and the Hawksbills. The results may not be seen for 10 to 20 years until hatchlings from the hatchery are old enough to reproduce, however, as with most meaningful investments it takes time – which we are willing to invest because we believe in these animals and helping to ensure their survival.”

To increase the number of eggs coming into the hatchery, Herrick and Haberman plan to encourage the local people to continue collecting the eggs – as they have been doing for years – and rather than have them eat the eggs themselves, or sell to food vendors, the hatchery will pay them for the eggs or trade them for food.

“They are used to taking these eggs to market or contacts they have developed, so hopefully we can make it beneficial enough for them so they will inject us into the system, which will preserve the life of the turtles as well as provide them replacement food and money sources.”

Haberman says there is a whole new world of food – such as peanut butter – that they island inhabitants have never tried before.

“We can find things that they will like and hopefully it will entice them to substitute their desire for eggs with the products we can provide for them.” Haberman says. “There are a multitude of options for them including rice, beans, cooking oil – things that we take for granted here in the United States – but that they would welcome with open arms.”

And a return trip to the tiny island this past December opened new doors for the group. Haberman, Herrick and Batres met extensively with representatives of the University of El Salvador, and ICMARES, an organization within the University that is concerned with sea turtles.

“A great deal of work has been done to involve and educate the indigenous islanders about the need to protect the marine turtles,” says Haberman. “And we believe that they are now enthusiastic supporters of the hatchery.”

In addition to the saving turtle eggs and the introduction of new food sources, the project has the potential to bring great social and educational opportunities to the people of Meanguera Island, as well, says Haberman.

“This population faces huge problems in addition to dealing with depleted sea life,” says Haberman. “They will have a serious lack of educational opportunities for future generations, geographic isolation, as well as the problems associated with being an indigenous population in an economically poor country that is just a few years out of a bloody civil war.”

“The island is truly a diamond in the rough. These inhabitants do go to school, but their programs and resources are limited and they essentially have less than a high school education upon completion of their system,” says Haberman. “After finishing school they either become fisherman or join the military, and while both are noble professions, we hope to be able to bring the advances of the rest of the world here, while also preserving the beauty and wildlife.”

“We don't want Meanguera Island to become another Cancun, but we do want to increase the ability of the population to preserve their culture, while gaining educational and economic advantages,” he says. “The people of the island are enthusiastic backers of our work, due to the work of our partner in El Salvador, Mr. Batres. He has worked with the people for several years and has their trust and support. Since they trust him, and he trusts us, we are warmly welcomed on the island.”

Haberman says they have already contributed four computers to the school on the island, and are now exploring ways to bring internet access to them.

“It was kind of a first step to get computers in there and to have someone teach computer skills, because if a child in this day and age – no matter where they are in the world – doesn’t have computer skills, it limits their options. We are now working on getting internet access, teaching English, and developing a full high school education on the island and exploring college courses by internet from the National University of El Salvador and the University of Belize in Belmopan. In the future, students on the island may be able to take on-line courses from Lone Star College–Tomball. Again, it might not be directly related to the turtle hatchery project, but it is a way to help bring the people of this island forward.”

The benefits of the island projects extend well beyond its shores, says Haberman.

“We would like to take groups of our students from Lone Star College–Tomball there as well as bring groups of students from there to visit here,” he says. “This can be a biological and social lesson, as well as a study in international relationships.”

So, what began as saving turtles one egg at a time has mushroomed, says Haberman.

“It’s much bigger now than saving the sea turtles. The people on the island are warm and friendly, and are anxious to work toward providing a future for their children,” says Haberman. “In addition to helping the people of this island, it presents an excellent social and environmental laboratory to study issues relating to the careful and beneficial intervention into an indigenous subculture while avoiding the cultural damage that is often the result of such intervention.”

Haberman and Herrick will return with a group from Lone Star College–Tomball in March to check on the hatchery and its progress – which appears to have been more than they could have imagined.

“In November we had our first hatching of baby turtles – 465 of them,” says Haberman. “And to be able to make that kind of a difference in such a short period of time is incredible. When I think about all of the turtles that we have the potential of saving – as well as the lives that we can improve in the process – it makes me very proud to be a part of this.”

For more information on the turtle hatchery, or to find out how to help, please contact Stephen Haberman by phone at (281)351-3346, or by email: at stephen.haberman@lonestar.edu.

Lone Star College–Tomball is a member of the Lone Star College System. Lone Star College System, among the largest and fastest growing community college districts in Texas, comprises Lone Star College-North Harris, Lone Star College-Kingwood, Lone Star College–Tomball, Lone Star College–Montgomery, Lone Star College–CyFair, seven satellite centers and The University Center.