Pursuing Coastal Conservation in Northeastern Brazil as a Shared Responsibility

Aerial images of the coastline of northern Bahia, Brazil, in 2000 and 2008 show how the coastline has been developed over time from coconut plantations to resort tourism. © Projeto Tamar Image Bank

Aerial images of the coastline of northern Bahia, Brazil, in 2000 and 2008 show how the coastline has been developed over time from coconut plantations to resort tourism. © Projeto Tamar Image Bank

By GUSTAVE G. LOPEZ, PAULO H. LARA, and EDUARDO SALIÉS

Sea turtle conservation in Brazil began in 1980 with the creation of Projeto Tamar, the Brazilian Sea Turtle Conservation Program. The work started with an extensive survey that identified the different turtle species and areas of occurrence along the entire Brazilian coast. Threats also were documented as part of this survey, which at the time were egg collection, the killing of nesting females for food and for shell used in handmade crafts, and the capture of turtles at sea.

At the time, nesting beaches were distant from major urban areas, and Tamar’s main conservation strategy was to promote local community participation. Tamar hired fishermen to locate and protect turtles and nests, promoted environmental education, and developed economic activities that generated employment for local residents. Ultimately, this strategy supported the concept that turtles are more valuable alive than dead. Currently, 80 percent of all nests are kept at their original sites without any human-induced disturbance. Nests are relocated to protected open-air hatcheries only when they have been laid on highly erosive areas or on beaches with high levels of human use.

Early on, the northern coast of Bahia State was identified as an important nesting ground, at first for the loggerhead turtles and later for hawksbills and olive ridleys. Green turtles can also be found nesting in small numbers but are mostly seen swimming and feeding on the reef fringes along the coast. The nesting season runs from September through March, and in the 2012–2013 season nearly 8,000 nests were recorded, representing 4 out of 10 nests recorded for all of Brazil during that period. Research published in 2007 shows increasing trends in nesting numbers for loggerheads, hawksbills, and olive ridleys in northern Bahia, and data collected in following years uphold those findings and demonstrate that long-term conservation efforts have had positive results.

Aerial images of the coastline of northern Bahia, Brazil, in 2000 and 2008 show how the coastline has been developed over time from coconut plantations to resort tourism. © Projeto Tamar Image Bank

Aerial images of the coastline of northern Bahia, Brazil, in 2000 and 2008 show how the coastline has been developed over time from coconut plantations to resort tourism. © Projeto Tamar Image Bank

During the past three decades of Tamar’s work in Bahia, the socioeconomics of northern Bahia have changed drastically. Historically, coconut farms predominated throughout the entire region. Coastal fishing villages were isolated and connected only by unmaintained and tortuous roads. It was only in the mid-1990s that transportation infrastructure was improved with the construction of a major road. Tourism gradually became a strong economic activity in northern Bahia, owing to the beauty of its deserted beaches, and the old coconut plantations started to give way to hotels and condominiums, thereby raising new challenges to sea turtle conservation. In 10 years, the region’s availability of tourist rooms grew by 300 percent, not including condominiums. Development projects were undergoing separate environmental evaluations but were not being looked at for their broader impacts on the region.

As these new threats emerged, Tamar needed to inform government agencies and developers that a long-standing turtle population also occupied the beach. But merely informing government would not be enough to prevent damaging development projects from affecting this high-value 200-kilometer stretch of pristine coastline. Sustainable solutions had to be proposed or there would be very little room for dialogue.

Using a geospatial tool and data collected over 30 years allowed Tamar to demonstrate sea turtle nesting patterns and fidelity in the region, highlighting key hotspots important for turtles. A detailed map was produced with turtle nesting activity, graded by colors representing numbers of nests per kilometer for all three species found in the region. The map showed three sensitivity categories and suggested land use strategies for each. These suggestions included guidelines on safe forms of beach access, safe distances from the beach for construction, as well as suggestions on beach lighting and use by tourists. The content of the maps and guidelines was published as a booklet called Sensitivity Maps and Guidelines for Sea Turtle Conservation in Bahia.

A map of Bahia, Brazil, with areas of coastline color-coded to reflect their level of nesting activity. Land use strategies that correspond to each level were developed to help safeguard sea turtles in one of Brazil’s most abundant nesting areas. © Projeto Tamar

A map of Bahia, Brazil, with areas of coastline color-coded to reflect their level of nesting activity. Land use strategies that correspond to each level were developed to help safeguard sea turtles in one of Brazil’s most abundant nesting areas. © Projeto Tamar

Gradually, experience has shown that a single group, institution, or program does not achieve conservation goals. Rather, conservation is a shared responsibility among all stakeholders, and only through collective participation will sea turtles be protected long term. As a body of conservationists, Tamar’s main challenge is to educate and promote the best available environmental practices using information gathered through years of research and continuous presence in the field. The user-friendly format of the sensitivity maps helps everyone, from government to investors and builders, understand the situation of northern Bahia’s sensitive turtle beaches. Businesses can now better evaluate their plans and include the necessary costs of environmental protection, government environmental agencies have the information needed to conduct permitting processes, and decisionmaking processes become clearer for all stakeholders. As a result of Tamar’s contributions, fewer conflicts arise, and there is more room for conciliation between urban development and environmental conservation.

Brazil has other important nesting areas, and most of them are targeted for tourism and industrial development as well. Lessons learned from the production of this guide are now being used to create similar documents for important rookeries in the states of Rio de Janeiro, Espírito Santo, Sergipe, and Rio Grande do Norte.