Marine Turtles in Bocas del Toro: Culture Vs Sustainability

sea-turtle-conservancy-logoA child goes to his father and says: Dad, I heard it’s not right to eat sea turtles, and that there is only a few left and it takes many years for them to reach maturity and only 1 of every 1,000 are born to survive to become adults. The father answers: Son, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s part of our tradition and culture. If my father did it, and his father before him than it can’t be bad. The kid thought perhaps their traditions were something that were no longer sustainable.

Things are changing. Of course there is a new awakening in our environmental consciousness and that little voice inside of us tells us something is wrong. When we don’t know where to put all the trash that we produce and were considering sending it to outer space: something is wrong. When we discover there is no fish in the ocean because we humans have multiplied too fast, something is wrong. When we can observe how the coral is dying and has its impact on the entire ecosystem and it doesn’t even move us. Something is wrong! When we continue threatening the existence of other species that share the same planet as us: something is absolutely wrong…

The sea turtles are a part of the Bocatoranian culture. They are revered as a symbol and an emblem of the community; as well as a regional delicacy, Caribbean pride, a protein source and an aphrodisiac. Sea turtles: many purposes and many perceptions. We have added a few more here: they balance the ecosystem, provide nutrients to the beaches, promote educational movements, connect humans with the ocean…

te-amo-bocasBocas del Toro has been historically a nesting place of great importance in the Central American Caribbean for species like the Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata). For thousands of years turtles probably chose these beaches freely, where they felt comfortable and secure, to nest between March y October, however this security has diminished as Human Beings and modern civilization became part of the equation.

At the beginning of the 20th century and until the 1960’s, The Hawksbill Turtle population was sufficiently profitable in Bocas del Toro as to give place to a state system called “velación”*. Velación is where the municipality of Bastimentos would section off plots of beaches and auction them. The leaseholder would at the same time employ a night watchman that would remain awake all night hunting for turtles and would earn $1.50 for each one. In that time this was the main revenue source for the municipality and practically the whole world was involved in the business- as a buyer, a watchman, or a leaseholder. Panama exported to Japan more than 150,000 turtles between 1950-1990 for the commercialization of its shell, which placed Bocas as one of the most important dealers worldwide. By the time the early 1980’s came around the impact of these endeavors unfortunately resulted in a 98% loss of Hawksbill nests in some beaches of the province (Meylan, 2013).

The Sea Turtle is such a regional icon that it’s the Bocas del Toro Tortuguero baseball team’s mascot.

*Editor’s Note: I will boldly take the liberty of loosely translating this term in my US English vernacular as “all-nighter-ation” or “the practice of staying awake all night.” Velar = to stay awake all night. Vela = candle (“burning the candle at both ends” as the saying goes?)


It’s obvious that there is a strong link on a historic level between sea turtles and the population of Bocas del Toro which is very much alive and well in our daily reality. However the fact remains that Bocas del Toro lives off of tourism and many key stakeholders in the tourism sector are pushing towards a more sustainable tourism model. Nevertheless, its still all too common to witness the sale of meat and eggs in the archipelago, as well as Hawksbill shell jewelry in various stores. Children in school tell you that they want to protect them and know all about them: their life cycle, their different species, diet, threats… and at the same time lift their hands with total honesty and enthusiasm when they are asked who eats them. People feel sorry when they see images of wounded turtles or deceased ones due to the ingestion of plastic, but unfortunately they still throw trash in the ocean.

Let me be clear, these type of dilemmas are not unique to Bocas del Toro or Panama- humans worldwide tend to live in pure contradiction. Will we be able to survive as a species if we continue this way? It is urgent to open your eyes and wake up once and for all. We all have the legal authority to reflect and share with others what we know and feel.

If you feel the same way- don’t be afraid to scream, act, be the voice of your conscience!

Georgina Zamora Quílez
Coordinator of Environment Education and Divulgation Sea Turtle Conservancy


The Bocas Breeze is a digital and print newspaper proudly serving the Bocas del Toro community since 2004; reporting news, advertising local businesses and promoting tourism in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *