Grupo Tortuguero Comcåac :The Comcáac, more widely known as the Seri, Indians of the Sonora coast and midriff islands of the Gulf of California have long been stewards to their shockingly harsh and incredibly diverse environment. They retain ownership of, and, exclusive rights to the natural resources of much of their historical homelands. Having resisted westernization for centuries, they still seek to preserve their traditional lifestyle within the context of the seas’ dwindling resources and increasing economic, political, cultural and environmental pressures.
Over the last four decades, sea turtle populations in this region have experienced tremendous declines. Leatherbacks and Hawksbills are critically endangered, Loggerheads and Green turtles are endangered, and the Olive Ridley is listed as vulnerable.
This decline taken together with the impact of the irresponsible and illegal fishing practices of outside groups and the heavy hand of neighboring coastal development presents a cascade of environmental wrongs that may irreversibly change the seascape within this once pristine area. In response, there has been increased resolve by the Seri to protect and manage the natural resources within their ecosystem and to preserve the traditional knowledge that has provided the strength to defend the tribe’s territorial, cultural and environmental integrity in the past. There are approximately 1000 Seri living in 2 coastal villages; Desemboque and Punta Chueca.
Grupo Tortuguero Comcåac is the marine component of a plan developed by Seri elders and youth to use traditional knowledge and western technology to find new and sustainable ways to respond to 21st Century political, social, cultural, economic and environmental pressures.
In May of 1999 community members held a workshop attended by three generations of Seri, and scientists from the United States and México. During this workshop formalization of the Para-Ecologo sea turtle team as part of a broader Para-Ecologo program was established. The mission of this sea turtle program is to carry out research and monitoring activities designed to document the biology of local sea turtle populations in this unique foraging area, to add the accumulated data to a global set of biologic and conservation modules, to increase the awareness and participation of Comcáac Tribal members in global sea turtle conservation efforts, and to explore economic alternatives that promote sustainable livelihoods and support marine conservation. There are 24 permanent members of Grupo Tortuguero Comcåac, average age 21. Trainees are aged 12-18.
The sea turtle is a “canary in a cage” for our oceans. Monitoring sea turtle population and distribution patterns, we get a very accurate overview of the health of our oceans.
Over the last three decades a variety of activities have been undertaken in Mexico to ensure the survival of sea turtles. In 1990 the Mexican government declared a moratorium on the harvest and trade of sea turtles and possession is now illegal. Many local grassroots conservation programs have come into existence, most unified under the name Grupo Tortuguero. Conservation effort has been concentrated on minimizing negative human impact on dwindling sea turtle populations of shrimp trawling, gill-netting, destruction of foraging areas, overfishing and illegal turtle hunting. Grupo Tortruguero Comcåac is uniquely positioned geographically, politically and culturally to be a major force in these efforts.
The center of the Seri territory, the Canal de Infiernillo, has long been considered a major foraging area for migrating juveniles and a possible over-wintering area for marine turtles of all ages. The monitoring of turtle activity in this area, extraordinarily rich in sea grasses, has the potential to include a broad range of age classes (nesting beach surveys, the most common type of monitoring activity, only focus on hatchlings and mature adult females) and is important to the formulation of a world-wide conservation policy that protects sea turtles once they leave their nesting areas.
Monitoring activities are conducted at several sites within Comcåac territory. Teams from both Comcåac villages (Punta Chueca and Desemboque) make two-day monitoring forays once a month at the time of the quartering moon. A typical monitoring team would include a Seri Elder as boat captain and guide, two young team members and two teen-age trainees. The teams camp on Taheojc, the Comcåac”s sacred uninhabited island or one of the traditional mainland fishing camps. On these forays the elders convey traditional natural and cultural knowledge to the younger generation.
Currently the monitoring season runs from April to November because of limited funding. Over-wintering of multi-age sea turtle classes during the remaining months has not been scientifically documented and could be an essential component of the turtle life cycle. Grupo Tortuguero Comcåac would like to expand the monitoring season to include the period from November to April.
Seri dictated time and area closures for all participants in the local finfish, crab, scallop and manta fisheries help ensure sustainable utilization of seafood resources. Shrimp fishing has been banned from the protected area because of its negative impact on turtle populations and the destruction of benthic substrates on the sea floor from the scouring action of bottom-trawling. Grupo Tortuguero Comcåac members collaborate with Comcåac tribal police in the monitoring, enforcement and educational components of the MPA.
Grupo Tortuguero Comcåac was created by Seri Elders to offer their youth an alternative to negative 21st century influences. The Elders feel strongly that traditional ways are necessary for cultural survival. Since the health of the ocean, represented by the health of the sea turtles in their area, is integral to their economic, cultural, and spiritual fortunes, the natural world is seen as part of their protected family. The Elders have started a traditional school in which many members of GTC teach. There is also a GTC recruitment program through which trainees are given the opportunity to make monitoring trips. “Seri Woodstock” a concert with indigenous bands from Mexico and the United States was held last March in Punta Chueca. Proceeds from the concert funded the purchase of 4 new monitoring nets.
In Mexico GTC is a member of Grupo Tortuguero, a union of community grassroots organizations, Mexican NGOs and government agencies.
Grupo Tortuguero Comcåac was presented with the Ocean Revolution Native Oceans Award at the Global Conservation Award Ceremony in Washington on June 7th, 2006. They were honored along with Ratu Aisea Katonivere of Fiji before an audience of international journalists, conservationists, scientists and politicians. Voting on these awards were Conservation International, WWF, IUCN, MBCS and Ocean Revolution. In January 2008 the International Sea Turtle Society symposium will be held in Loreto, Mexico. The theme of the meeting will be Native Oceans and Grupo Tortuguero will be the host organization. They will hold a four-day traditional ceremony to open the symposium, will present at the regional Grupo Tortuguero Meeting during the symposium, present a bazaar of traditional Seri foods and crafts, and produce a book and DVD on the history and importance of the sea turtle to Seri culture and their efforts to conserve and restore sea turtle habitat and populations.
Grupo Tortuguero Comcåac is currently funded by:
• Ocean Revolution
• The Ocean Foundation
• Knight-Vision Foundation
• The Putnam Foundation
• T&E Incorporated
• The Norcross Foundation
• National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
• The University of Arizona’s Center for Sustainable Environments
• Pro Peninsula
• Locally generated funds from the sale of arts and crafts
• Contributions from the Comcåac Tribal Council
See the newly created Seri website, blogs, YouTube, and Flickr
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