Persuasion: The Case for Saving Sea Turtles


By Blair Witherington

Sea turtles have survived without us. We’ve had almost no input in shaping their principal adaptive traits. Without regard to humans, sea turtles grow large to deter predation; are attracted to light as sea-seeking hatchlings; and have nesting distributions on sandy beaches that, over millennia, have shifted with the rising seas.

For millions of years, we did not matter to sea turtles. But recently, our little group of large-skulled land mammals with opposable thumbs has become hard to ignore. We are efficient and undeterred predators and supreme competitors who are messy with our waste, and the unintended consequences of our actions have reached a planetary scale. As such, we have caused our planet’s sea turtles to decline. Yet we also work to conserve them. We are a schizophrenic group, we humans, simultaneously presenting environmental problems and solutions, but with an obliviousness to each.

What sea turtles need, if we are to keep them around, is a change in our behavior—not of just a few of us, but of a lot of us. But how can a group that seems to be at cross-purposes achieve such a change?

The answer is persuasion. Persuasion is the process of changing attitudes or behaviors by communicating information, reason, or emotion. It is an essential skill in many endeavors, and it is instrumental to conservation.

Humans are social animals. Our attitudes and behaviors are guided by others in our societies through the competition of selfish interests, taboos, tacit rules, formal law, policing, and the degree to which we submit to governance. What follows is an examination of how these controls on human behavior can change through persuasive efforts. The contributors have divided their discussions of persuasion among key elements of our societies that provide behavioral guidance—scientists, industrialists, lawmakers, policymakers, and the public at large.

Scientists: Focusing on the Most Critical Questions in Sea Turtle Conservation

By Larry B. Crowder

Scientists are bred to be independent, critical thinkers who assess the data and make their own conclusions. But scientists also tend to be swept up in trends driven by new concepts, new methodologies, funding opportunities, or charismatic leaders. Conventional wisdoms predominate until irrefutable evidence leads to a tipping point and new conventional (and potentially equally wrong) wisdoms arise. Our “independent thinking” waxes and wanes, but our strong wills remain. For these reasons, scientists are often resistant to changing their hard won conclusions, positions, or approaches. One cannot force these changes; persuasion occurs as the issues are illuminated and skeptics are shown the evidence.

Early in my career, most sea turtle biologists concentrated their work on the nesting stage and on embryos and hatchlings. Once hatchlings skittered off into the sea, they entered the “lost years,” only to turn up back on the same beach years or decades later. Until people began to be concerned about dead stranded turtles on the beach, we rarely looked to the sea to understand or conserve sea turtles. Debby Crouse’s (1987) population model for loggerheads showed two unconventional (and perhaps unpalatable) results: (1) even miraculously successful conservation on nesting beaches could only prolong time to extinction, and (2) significant reduction in bycatch mortality would be required for species recovery. When this result was published, Crouse heard no response from her fellow sea turtle scientists for a couple of years. It really wasn’t until publication of the National Research Council’s book titled Decline of the Sea Turtles: Causes and Prevention (1990) that her ideas began to go viral. Since then, her paper has been cited over 400 times; it is taught in population biology and conservation courses. As a participant in that research, I have to say I had no idea that it would help lever changes in national and international policy, or that it would be taught in conservation curricula. But I did have a hunch that sea turtle biologists would take a while to adopt these challenging results.

Scientists, like other humans, are creatures of habit. We do what we enjoy and what we feel comfortable doing. And when someone is pushing us out of our comfort zone, we resist. Telling us that we should change does little. But showing us a new result, method, or insight gradually erodes conventional thinking and comfortable approaches. Those who are founding members of the International Sea Turtle Society (ISTS) recall when the early meetings were several days of “on my beach” talks. These included viewing amazing natural history and hearing stories of people performing heroic efforts to acquire the data, often in remote, challenging locations. But things have changed.

As conservation researchers, we need to constantly ask ourselves, “Is the work I am doing addressing
the most critically important issues in sea turtle conservation?”

The ISTS meetings now include a wide variety of research and management talks covering the entire life history of sea turtles and employing the most powerful new techniques from genetics, physiology, satellite tagging, remote sensing, spatial analyses, and population dynamics, as well as deep dives into the social sciences. Sea turtle conservation’s principal meeting has evolved from a predominantly inside conversation to an open sharing of compelling evidence. This evidence is essential to scientific persuasion.

As conservation researchers, we need to constantly ask ourselves, “Is the work I am doing addressing the most critically important issues in sea turtle conservation?” This question seldom allows the comfort of status quo. Scientists who take it seriously often recast their research to address the tough issues, such as how to age sea turtles, how to measure juvenile survival at sea, how to rank threats across life stages, how to understand the geography of distinct populations, or how to understand and promote more sustainable activities in coastal communities. Our commitment to the conservation of protected species leaves us little room to maneuver—we have an ethical obligation to set comfort, pride, and peer pressure aside to tackle research that matters.

Industrialists: Convincing Businesspeople That Conservation Is in Their Best Interests

By Kellie Pendoley

The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring heralded a new era for both industry and the environmental movement. The book brought the impact of human pollution to the attention of the public for the first time. The next 30 years saw relationships between all sectors of big business and “greenies” become increasingly confrontational and distrustful. Since then, though, the gradual absorption of environmental graduates into the day-to-day operations of business has allowed the slow evolution of cooperation and a sometimes reluctant acceptance of environmental concerns as a core part of business activities.

Field assistants test the orientation of hatchling flatback turtles in the presence of lights typically used by industry and in urban areas. The data from the study, which was conducted on Barrow Island, Australia, were used to establish a baseline to inform the Chevron Gorgon gas project. © Kellie Pendoley

Field assistants test the orientation of hatchling flatback turtles in the presence of lights typically used by industry and in urban areas. The data from the study, which was conducted on Barrow Island, Australia, were used to establish a baseline to inform the Chevron Gorgon gas project. © Kellie Pendoley

Environmental science was first established as a major in 1965 at Middlebury College in Vermont, and, since that time, universities globally have been training the professionals needed to guide businesses in reducing their environmental footprint on the world. Large multinational corporations with high public profiles were the first to embrace these new concepts. However, the integration of environmental processes into all levels of business is still not 100 percent complete even in the wealthy industrialized countries, and it is a low priority in the rest of the world.

Environmental practitioners fulfill a difficult role, balancing on the fence between the typically urgent and commercially driven requirements of the industries they work in, the politically driven conditions of regulators, and the emotive extremism of the nongovernmental organizations and other activist groups they may feel aligned with or must respond to. Persuasion begins by educating the people who make up a business unit. This education is paramount and can take many forms, ranging from forceful implementation of environmental protection by regulation or public demonstration, to a more subtle process of cultural and corporate policy change brought about through working within a business.

Environmental practitioners who are working on change from within learn that it takes time and patience. Typically, making big changes in a business can require three to five years. That change comes from building good working relationships with business managers, planners, and engineers to gain their trust and respect, and from creating a shared vision with the business management and executives. When working within a business, one should recognize that many proposals cannot be stopped. Instead, the most productive conservation results often come from steering business activities toward reducing their potential environmental impacts as much as possible— As Low as Reasonably Practicable, or ALARP—rather than blocking the activities altogether. ALARP is about as quantitative as we can be when dealing with industry.

For example, although science has recognized the impact of light on turtle hatchlings since Hooker’s 1905 paper on the subject, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Western Australia’s industry and regulators caught up and first began to address the management of lighting from industrial developments close to marine turtle rookeries. In the 25 years since, strict management of all aspects of facility lighting and flares has become an integral part of doing business on sites close to turtle rookeries in Western Australia.

This integration is straightforward for those businesses that possess a strong corporate culture of environmental protection, such as Chevron in Western Australia, which has been operating on oilfields on Barrow Island, a Class A Nature Reserve, since 1965. For companies without a strong environmental culture, however, the integration can be more challenging. Regulations on light management require legal compliance for the most environmentally sensitive projects, while other projects can refer to the environmental good practices provided by the Western Australian government’s “Environmental Assessment Guideline for Protecting Marine Turtles from Light Impacts” (2010).

Some of the associated benefits from this type of business activity have been the availability of money and resources to identify and study regional turtle rookeries and to develop new technologies to study turtles— funds and materials that might not otherwise have been available. For example, in Western Australia novel digital photographic equipment and software that can capture and quantify light in a biologically meaningful and repeatable way have been developed. In addition, an aerial photographic survey technique is being refined that will allow the capture and analysis of high-resolution photographic transects that can identify species from tracks left on the beaches.

Business-based environmental practitioners have few weapons at their disposal, have little power, and often work in isolation. Our role within business is to advise on project design, construction, and operations; participate in risk assessments; provide evidence to prove why an action should not proceed; comply with health and safety restrictions around every aspect of fieldwork; and encourage, cajole, inspire, persuade, reason, argue, and above all educate everyone from the junior in the mail room to the managing director in the board room as to why environmental consciousness is the responsibility of everyone, every day, everywhere.

Persuasion begins by educating the people who make up a business unit. This education is paramount and can take many forms …

Education and persuasion begins with a human approach. We ensure that everyone understands their responsibility for the natural environment, and we urge that they personally embrace the idea that the natural environment is theirs; it is their backyard and its loss will be a loss for their children and grandchildren. Not everyone is motivated by this approach, and, for those who are not, we need to be more pragmatic. We show them how noncompliance with environmental standards could halt a project; cost money in fines, lost time, missed deadlines, and broken contracts; and result in very public impacts on their corporate reputation as a socially responsible operator and a good global citizen, terms that were coined 50 years ago when Silent Spring was first published and are now part of our daily lexicon.

Lawmakers: The Art of Legislative Persuasion

By Gary Appelson

Florida is in a unique position when it comes to protecting sea turtles. The state’s beaches host almost all of the leatherback, loggerhead, and green sea turtle nesting in North America. Turtles of different age classes also use the nearshore reefs, seagrass beds, and estuaries for foraging and refuge. At the same time, over 60 percent of Florida’s almost 19 million residents live within five miles of the beach; over 75 percent of Florida’s 62 million annual tourists visit the beach; and most of the state’s turtle nesting beaches are lined with homes, hotels, and businesses. In this context, sea turtle protection often pivots on lawmakers’ decisions about beach and shoreline use and protection.

However, although much has been written on the topic of communicating with lawmakers about science or environmental issues, less has been conveyed about the many other variables that can complicate the decision making process. The reality on the ground is that this communication process is not purely objective and value free. In fact, lawmakers are subject to emotions, ambition, value systems, political pressures, and competing demands from an endless array of other stakeholders and interest groups. Presenting an effective message above this din is tricky. Understanding the players and their unique playing field is essential for success. These five tips will help get you started.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco (right) and Barbara Schroeder of the National Marine Fisheries Service (left) release rehabilitated Kemp’s ridleys following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Bringing policymakers into the field to observe and interact with sea turtles can result in lasting impressions. © NOAA

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco (right) and Barbara Schroeder of the National Marine Fisheries Service (left) release rehabilitated Kemp’s ridleys following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Bringing policymakers into the field to observe and interact with sea turtles can result in lasting impressions. © NOAA

Identify the appropriate decision makers: Know which level of government is responsible for addressing your concerns. Although state laws can have sweeping consequences, convincing state lawmakers to pass new conservation laws or change existing laws is very difficult and often expensive. However, regulatory agencies often implement the laws and ensure compliance with the consequent rules and policies. Thus, often a more productive approach is to educate and work with agency staff members rather than with lawmakers who are dealing with hundreds of issues. Getting to know the staff members and establishing working relationships are essential. And though elected officials come and go with each election cycle, agency staff members typically offer greater continuity and institutional and experiential memory that can be used to justify current conservation policies and the need for changes in policy.

Plan your timing: In the current era of economic hardship, austerity measures, and reduced budgets, governments are often focused on fostering job creation by reducing the regulatory burden on citizens and businesses. The political climate may not support additional conservation laws that require new rules and regulations. Thus, your ability to persuade may depend on waiting for the pendulum to swing to a better time.

Find your champions: Of course, implementing a new law, modifying current laws, or preventing proposed changes that could potentially weaken existing laws may be needed to achieve a conservation goal. In these situations, find your champions! Lawmakers often turn to other colleagues for information, judgment, and intuition on specific matters. Finding supportive lawmakers who also lead other lawmakers requires research and time spent developing personal relationships, respect, and trust. Conservation advocates must educate their champions by providing science-based, credible information. Identifying collateral benefits can also be useful. Remember that lawmakers are being pulled and pushed by many stakeholders. Lawmakers are looking for balance in accommodating the needs of sea turtles and the millions of residents and tourists interacting with marine and coastal habitats. So, know all sides of the issues, and convey them to your supportive lawmakers.

Find common ground: There is truth to the adage that “politics makes for strange bedfellows.” Don’t automatically write off lawmakers with differing beliefs or values. Sea Turtle Conservancy is working with lawmakers who support unfettered free enterprise and private property rights and who believe in market-based pricing of wind and flood insurance. Together, these lawmakers and members of the conservation community support the removal of government insurance subsidies that promote high-risk and environmentally destructive coastal development.

Be passionate!: Many of us come to this work because we are passionate about protecting nature and the environment. Sometimes the mysteries of government and perceived inaccessibility of lawmakers are discouraging. Don’t be afraid to be passionate about your cause in your conversations and phone calls. This enthusiasm is persuasive. And, after all, sea turtles are an iconic species in need of every effort to protect them.

Policymakers: An Agency View of Conservation Action

By Barbara Schroeder

How we use and conserve resources is ultimately determined by public policy. This policy is the principled guidance of government decisions. It is fine-tuned and acted upon by the administrative branches of our governments—the agencies. Policies have their foundation in law, but their implementation is shaped by input from many communities. In a flow chart, the public policy box would receive arrows from business, conservation, science, law, and the public.

Because of the variety of inputs to sea turtle conservation policy, these policies and their results seldom mirror the views of a single group. Policy is an amalgam, determined by competing forces of persuasion. Policy is informed by sound science, but it is also influenced by business advocates, conservation advocates, and the public at large. The most influential science comes from sea turtle research that has filled critical information gaps. Good science is persuasive in and of itself. But what that science means for sea turtle conservation is shaded by individual interests, collective interests, and philosophy. Agencies must consider all of these external persuasive forces in the decision making process. Given the complex nature of making or changing public policy, sea turtle conservation advocates should work strategically toward addressing the most pressing threats and advocating management actions necessary to resolve those threats.

Persuasion is also a force that applies within agencies. For those working at staff levels within the public sector—be it local, municipal, state, provincial, or federal government agencies—persuasion is a necessary element for getting things done for sea turtle conservation. Policymakers are often only indirectly familiar with the species we focus on; thus, bringing policymakers “closer to the action” can sometimes be effective in helping them understand more directly the species itself, the extent and impact of particular threats, and the solutions that are within their power to implement. This effort to educate can take several forms. Bringing policymakers into the field to observe and interact with sea turtles firsthand can result in a lasting impression of the plight of the species and the need to address conservation problems. Holding periodic informative briefings at times other than when conservation decisions are on the line to highlight a particular species, primary threats, or conservation successes can result in more informed decision makers when the need for policy or rule making decisions arise.

Agency staff members should consider inviting an influential leader from outside the public arena to give a well-crafted talk pertinent to conservation issues of concern—scheduled when key policymakers can attend to expand their knowledge and garner their support. Critical to success is being well prepared, with clear and factual information supporting the need for action. In most agencies, policymakers are faced daily with many decisions on multiple fronts, so strategic thinking is important in crafting a case. What is the most important message? What are the most important facts to present? What misinformation is most important to refute with facts? To the extent possible, anticipate questions and concerns and be prepared to respond to them effectively. Recognize and acknowledge that, in most cases, information is imperfect, yet our species are imperiled, and action is often urgent. Where the competing forces acting on policy decisions are strong, compromise is often required to move the conservation bar forward, even if not as expeditiously as hoped. A compromise may at least provide a starting point on which to build.

As a conservationist who works in the public sector, you should accept that sometimes, despite being well prepared with all the facts on your side, policy decisions might not go your way. These can be difficult outcomes to accept, especially given the endangered status of the species we work with. Learn as much as you can from the process and consider another way you might approach the issue. Working within the public policy arena provides an opportunity to shape conservation, and while success is often gained in incremental steps, dedicated efforts over the long term can, and in fact do, make a difference for sea turtle conservation.

The Public: Advocacy to Support Policy, Take Action, Donate, and Speak Out

By Randall Arauz

The first step toward persuading the public to support a conservation policy and take action is to get them to pay attention to the issue that concerns your group. Certain issues allow for the presentation of shocking, attention-getting information, such as disturbing oil spill images and raw facts about chemical waste dumps. These are the wake-up calls that often foster immediate attention and emotional responses, begging the questions: “Why is this being allowed to happen?” “Isn’t there anything we can do about it?” and “Aren’t there laws against this?”

To grab the public’s attention as they ask these questions, your group can begin by clearly exposing the issue and describing the actions needed to achieve change. Next, identify the target—the person responsible who can change the situation—as well as the condition or change that will mark the victory. The public has to feel needed and be convinced that their support will make a difference. Giving them the facts—the threat, the consequences, and the solutions you propose—in full-page ads in local and international newspapers is a good way to start, with attached form letters addressed to the target. There’s nothing like a few thousand letters to build a fire under a politician’s feet. Additional ways of generating attention are through social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Have your facts prepared and make sure the science is correct, because your detractors will try to punch holes in your arguments. Prepare a summary on the issue that can be widely distributed—as a brochure or flyer and on a website—so that people can easily learn the facts surrounding the issue. Websites also can have “Donate” buttons so the public can support your efforts financially.

Randall Arauz (left), director of PRETOMA, and Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla (right) with a petition signed by 100 students of Blue Valley School, Escazú, Costa Rica. The petition, which addresses the issue of shark finning, was organized by Chinchilla’s teenage son in 2011. © PRETOMA

Randall Arauz (left), director of PRETOMA, and Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla (right) with a petition signed by 100 students of Blue Valley School, Escazú, Costa Rica. The petition, which addresses the issue of shark finning, was organized by Chinchilla’s teenage son in 2011. © PRETOMA

Make the issue a subject for broad public debate. Get your opinions published in the local, national, and international media. Get others to participate and to foster discussions. Continue to push to keep the issue in the public eye. Several tactics can be used to build popular support for a cause. These include publishing press releases regularly to give your activities a sense of continuity, holding press conferences to reach mainstream media, seeking coverage in local newspapers and on radio, and speaking to community groups. You also can publish online newsletters and use social media to get the word out and keep financial supporters informed of the activities conducted with their contributions.

Besides the public, constituencies can be built in other appropriate sectors of society. Having blocs of scientists backing up your position will help to shore up support among academic sectors and build support that can reach international meetings, such as symposia and congresses. Additional target constituencies include politicians, student groups, and journalists. Celebrities come in very handy as well, because they serve as icons that allow you to reach sectors of society who may not normally know or care about the issue.

School children, too, can have a powerful impact, because these young citizens often go home and talk about issues with their parents. I experienced an example of this once during a meeting with Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla. She showed me a petition addressed to her from my organization, PRETOMA (Programa Restauración Tortugas Marinas), on the shark-finning issue that had been signed by over 100 students from the Blue Valley School, Escazú, Costa Rica. The signatures had been gathered by her teenage son, who studies there. “My son is a little activist,” she said proudly. Cool stickers with messages are great tools for spreading the word among school kids, and nothing beats an impassioned personal lecture.

Sign-on (petition) campaigns can really create a positive impact on politicians, especially when the letters pile up by the thousands. In addition, always get an e-mail contact from people who sign your letters, so you can keep them informed of all developments.

Those politicians who are obstacles to conservation solutions will need their own special persuasion. Because anonymity shields unpopular action, exposing the identities of obstructionists can often move them toward cooperation. And for those working on the side of conservation, remember to make them aware of how valuable they are in directing public policy. Celebrate all victories, even the smallest ones.

Communities: Persuading People to Conserve Their Sea Turtles

By S. Hoyt Peckham

Among the biggest challenges in conservation is persuading people to personally protect their natural resources. Even in the best of cases, when effective and fair conservation regulations are created through participatory processes based on sound science, the act of conservation comes down to personal choices. The fate of many turtles depends on decisions made by the coastal citizens around the world who interact with sea turtles every day. These people include fishermen, tourists, beach dwellers, and many others. As conservation practitioners, our job then is to empower people to be able to choose in favor of turtles as they go about their everyday lives. The following are some suggestions for how to do this.

A large crowd looks on as rehabilitated loggerhead turtles are released on Isle of Palms, SC, U.S.A. © Tommy Teasley / South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program

A large crowd looks on as rehabilitated loggerhead turtles are released on Isle of Palms, SC, U.S.A. © Tommy Teasley / South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program

Choose a serious problem: Spend scarce conservation resources (philanthropic support, fishermen’s time, social capital, and your time and soul) on problems of only pressing conservation concern that directly jeopardize the recovery of a vulnerable turtle population.

Identify a hotspot: Once you’ve identified the problem, learn where you can have the biggest conservation impact or leverage. For instance, if you’ve identified poaching or bycatch as a major threat to a turtle population, identify in what nation, region, and community it is most intense, and concentrate your efforts on key leaders there.

Know the community: Start with a community profile. For a fisheries problem, for instance, determine what, when, where, why, and how people fish and interact with turtles, and how these interactions have changed over time. Also, what is the power structure in the community? Who are the key leaders, and who holds influence? Consider conducting a detailed social network analysis, and plan to spend considerable time in the community, on the scale of years.

Set realistic goals and objectives: Once you’ve zeroed in on the issue and community you will address, the Grupo Tortuguero’s Conservation Mosaic model provides a proven framework for engaging and inspiring individuals and communities to conserve turtles. Be transparent. Set realistic goals and SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) objectives. Share them with your collaborators.

Build a network of concerned citizens: Empower promising leaders by engaging them in local, regional, and international workshops, meetings, and conferences. Through their interactions with colleagues from other neighborhoods, towns, regions, and countries, their perspectives will broaden so that they appreciate the global impact of their behavior. They will become the spokespeople for sharing the problem and working toward solutions with their families, friends, and neighbors.

Conduct participatory research: Partner with those whose activities directly affect turtles (for example, fishermen or poachers) to assess the gravity of the problem. People will be far more willing to contribute to solutions once they understand the problem’s severity and their role in it. Understand who is having the most impact, as well as why, when, and how. As you consider solutions, identify people’s incentives. Solutions need to work not just for turtles but also for people and their community. Figure out with your network how to align those incentives. Examine deeply the implications of potential solutions, in ecological, economic, social, and political terms. Engage as broad a group of citizens as possible to create and test a range of complementary and resilient solutions.

Communicate the problem and its solutions: Apply the principles and practices of social marketing to design and continually refine a suite of outreach and communication initiatives. Identify locally resonant media, and use them creatively. Draw on your network. The pride campaign methodology used by the nonprofit group, Rare, is an excellent example of how to inspire whole communities to conserve turtles and other resources.

Engage government and institutions: Identify which agencies and individuals are officially responsible at local, state, and national levels. Learn how to engage them from the outset, and build alliances so that they can contribute to solutions. Eventually you will look to government or other institutions to reinforce the solutions developed by your local partners. It is always best if your local partners take up the cause for their turtles with their governments.