Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Touchy Subject

Yesterday, I witnessed a local man butchering a sea turtle.  It was a first for me; I had seen the signs and heard rumors of turtle killing and consumption in the southern Caribbean, but I had never actually seen it.  Yesterday, I did.  And it made me sad.  Really sad.

We were walking back to our dinghy after enjoying a happy hour when we came upon several local men cleaning their bountiful catch of grouper, snapper and other fish.  I heard more action from below the dock, looked down, and saw a man hidden from plain view, hurriedly cleaning something else entirely.  It was a Hawksbill sea turtle.  I was shocked and stood over him watching for a moment before Scott ushered me away.  "Is that legal?" I whispered to another cruiser who looked at me with sad eyes, shrugged and mouthed "I don't know".  I thought they were endangered, but I couldn't remember for sure.  The rushed way he was hacking did seem a bit clandestine...but who was I to judge?  So we quietly walked past, got into our dinghy and drove away.  It wasn't my place to say anything, anyway....or was it?

When we returned to the boat I actually took to our Facebook page and wrote: "Kinda bummed...just saw a local cleaning up a sea turtle...with a filet knife. I know we have no place to "judge" - but it did make me sad to see him hacking off the fins. I think they might even be endangered? They are so magnificent. Sad."  It got a lot of response.  The intention of that post was not to fuel debates about whether or not this man should have killed the turtle, nor was my purpose to open up a discussion about why this turtle should have our sympathy when so many factory farmed animals do not and I certainly wasn't trying to put my "educated" self on a pedestal by deeming this man ignorant and virtually berate him for his actions.  My post was simply to voice my sadness over seeing something I wished I hadn't.

But that little impulse post started all sorts of discussions and so I decided to take it a step further and write about it here.

One rather...er, passionate, follower had this to say:
"Did you offer to give the guy $100 bucks so he wouldn't have to eat a turtle? Did you offer to educate him on the status of the species and it's place in the ecosystem?; Did you give him a laptop, show him how to use it....so he could be 'connected'? You and all these other dumb asses on here who would hang this guy....have no idea what it's like to be in his shoes. So f****** typical for those who have to judge those who don't or for those who are 'educated' to judge those who are 'ignorant'. Maybe the guy needed to feed his family, maybe the turtle was all he caught, maybe he is supporting his grandparents who can't fish for themselves and the list goes on and on......disappointing to say the least."* -John

As it turns out, the hawksbill sea turtle is a "critically endangered" creature.  While hunting turtles was actually legal here up until 2009, the hunting of the Hawksbill turtle has been outlawed since 1986.  If we are to apply the logic of our eloquent friend John, perhaps local Bahamians should be excluded from the law?  But then again, isn't this the exact mentality that gets us in these messes in the first place?  Just walk away.  Pretend you didn't see anything and walk away.

While it is true that I have no idea of the circumstances of the fisherman's life and plight (perhaps he desperately needed the money from the shell?  Maybe he doesn't know they are endangered?), nor the details surrounding the death of the sea turtle (was it already dead? snared in a net? accidentally killed?), I do know a couple of things:
1.  If the turtle was in fact "hunted", there was no need to do so for sustenance alone.  There are plenty more fish in the sea and the local Bahamian's are expert anglers.
2.  Hunting a sea turtle requires work and effort.  Not only are they rare, they are very fast and not easy to catch.  It is not common to "accidentally" pull one up with a fishing line.

My question is this:  what would you have done?  What is the proper recourse in a situation like this?  We are visitors here, passerby's who know very little of the "real" lives of these folks.  I have no intention or desire to be the "environmental" police and I do not believe in forcing ourselves and beliefs on others.  But on the other hand, we're talking about a critically endangered animal here.  One who's numbers are dwindling in large part because of human impact.  So who is responsible?  Is it best to turn a blind eye and walk away?  Or should we try to speak our minds and share what we know?  It's a very difficult position, and I am curious what your thoughts are?   I honestly do not know the answer.

* If you actually read the thread, you will see that this man's impressions of what people were saying are pretty far off.

23 comments:

Amy said...

Brava to you for facing this head on. I honestly don't know what I would have done. I don't think anyone can answer that unless they are in that situation. I would have been sad as well. I am a vegan but refrain from judging others who aren't. I also don't force my opinions on people partly because I don't want to get into a conflict and partly because its just not worth it. I am not going to change someone's behavior or opinion by arguing with them. I live my life and if people ask me why - I will tell them. If it has an impact great if not well I am still living my truth and they are living theirs. I also believe what goes around comes around so that man will get his. You had every right to post your feelings. The people who were attempting to invalidate your feelings were just dealing with their own BS feelings. It was not about you or your sentiments-it is their issue. Hope that makes sense.

NatGeoWannaBe said...

To be honest, I probably would have done exactly as you did. I don't (prior to your post that is) know the laws there and I'm not convinced of the wisdom in lecturing men with knives on the morality of their actions in a foreign country.

In my own country, however, I may have said something...or since I'm more familiar with the laws here: called the authorities.

I recognize the need for those living on the margin to do what they must do to survive...but it was pretty evident that wasn't the case here. Whether it's stealing bread or killing endangered animals - there are almost always options other than breaking the law to survive.

Anonymous said...

I would of done the same.

Possibly report it to the local authorities. Let them sort it out. Being local they would have a better handle of the particular circumstances.

Jason K

Kimberly R. said...

I didn't read the thread, yet. I was at a funeral yesterday and was off the net. To answer based on what is written here...I would have done the same as you. I don't know the laws there and who's to know what could have haooened had you approached him. He could have been very nice and listened or he could have gotten angry. You just never know.
As for what John said huh...you handled that pretty well. I don't think I could have been so eloquent. I'm sure he would be upset if someone took his family pet and served it up for dinner to his family because he needed to feed them. This turtle is endangered because if humans like you said. His way of thinking doesn't care if animals go extinct. Lets turn a blind eye and not care.
The only way to hope to keep this from happening is to educate and hope that it works. I would do one thing though after the fact is notify someone of what you saw, the breed if turtle and request that they educate the locals. Atleast saying something does a small part in helping. Even if its only a small gesture. Lots if little things equal to one big one! :). I hope that made sense.

SailFarLiveFree said...

Touchy indeed. I've spent most of my career in environmental science and marine biology working on contentious issues. If there's one thing I've learned it's that our individual values dictate our actions and beliefs about the environment around us. We each protect (in our own way) what we know and love. We each have very different values based on our needs, our upbringing and our plight in life. Changing someone's values is VERY difficult. In any case, thanks to Brittany for sharing her insights and at least making us all stop and think about what it is we value through the sharing of her turtle story.

Anonymous said...

I would have done the same thing you did. You're a guest in the country, you were unsure of the law at the time and he had companions and a knife. Confrontation would have accomplished nothing.

Rachel said...

Hey Brittany, I've been lurking for a while but you got me with this one.
I would have had the exact same reaction as you did. There is no way anyone with a heartbeat wouldn't be sad and disturbed to see a turtle being butchered. Of course, like you, I would not have said anything to the guy. The intersection of culture and our environment is a tricky one. I work with a lot of indigenous people who have special provisions from the government to do things like possess Bald Eagle feathers for traditional ceremonies and I do believe we have to allow for cultural differences in how we interact with our environment.
Still...this is different. Regardless of why these turtles are endangered, EVERYONE has to be on board to have any chance of saving them for EVERYONE to enjoy.
You could consider reporting the guy to the authorities in some kind of anonymous way. I know you're out of the Land and Sea Park there might be some way of contacting someone. The Bahamian government needs to take responsibility for educating it's people about conservation. They wouldn't want all those cruise ship visitors to stop coming because all the wildlife is gone.
You guys are great - so inspiring - I miss the Bahamas!

Anonymous said...

I completely concur with how you handled the situation. Heartbreaking to the nth degree, devastating to acknowledge and sickening to observe. We all have a role in protecting our environments both above and below. After all, many of its (Mother Earth) inhabitants have been here long before us, yet are dwindling due to actions we've taken over the course of time. There is another gentle, truly defenseless creature that's only known predator or enemy is mankind... that is the manatee. Many are killed by cruisers (of all types) and some often unknowingly. But, there are steps that can taken to let the authorities know of an incident (manatee being hit by boat (by hit and run boater), sick or worse yet - dead) without losing one's privacy. Completely off-topic but again related, my great-grandfather was a logger of Redwood trees. Huge, multi-hundreds of year old trees that stood over 400 feet tall and were 30+ feet in diameter. Magnificent trees. He logged for livelihood. There are very few trees left on the planet. I atone for actions of my great-grandfather and am active to make amends. Baby steps can lead to action or awareness. We do the best we can, wherever we can. Thank you for your sensitivity and compassion. It speaks volumes to you, your character and integrity!

Mary said...

“Most people were heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after it has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Anonymous said...

Culture vs Greed

Japan and whales, Chinese and shark fin soup, Inuit and seals and so on. Hunting for sport vs hunting for survival. Who are we as visitors to other countries to judge? Long imbedded culture and tradition is difficult to change but it happens all the time usually with the first "leader" to speak out in the form of education about the perils of certain cultural activities.

This guy John is a complete moron, a sea urchin has more intelligence then him. If this fisherman had no clue, i.e "uneducated" wouldn't the turtle be treated and laid out with the rest of the catch of the day? Why would it be down below out of sight? This fisherman knew it was illegal and he was motivated by greed. In my opinion when culture and regulations have already said something is wrong we should speak up.

Mike

Kane Walls said...

Was the turtle caught in a net and already dead or something? Hopefully he just died of old age and the fisherman happened upon him. :(

Anonymous said...

One could report it to the authorities as said above, but try finding them and which authority? The regular police won't likely care and trying to find the closest fish and wildlife organization in a foreign land, possibly a different island can be a bit of a challenge.

My greatest concern and agreement is that a mother of a two year old stay safe with her family. Yes, one could kindly say that it's too bad it had to be a turtle and that it was endangered, very gently. If the fisherman didn't think of this then it could suffice in his future actions. Worst case scenario, there could have been an eventual criminal investigation as to how a local and tourists gotten into some conflict.

Brett Anderson said...

One more reason I'm not on FB any more! You said your opinion, and it was reasonable and not inflammatory, and yet this John Clark guy has to go off on you. Its too easy for people to be jerks on the internet. They say things most would never say to your face.

And I agree with you on the turtle. If it was hunted and killed that was wrong. I think you did the what most would've done though. You were unsure about the legality, you didn't know the men or whether they would cause trouble, and you have a baby to think about.

Anonymous said...

As hard as it was to walk away, you probably did the best thing, in that situation. If the man, with a big knife, did know it was endangered, he was not going to take your interest in his breaking the law kindly. And from what I have heard about law enforcement in the Bahamas, from residents, they probably wouldn't have done much. Sad but true. As far as Captain Angry, he needs to go back on his meds. The best you may be able to do is contact a conservation group, tell them what you saw and maybe they could work on getting the word out to locals how much tourists love seeing the native wildlife and how the damage of keystone species can lead to devistation of the ecosystem and eventual devistation to the reefs and beaches that attract people to the islands to spend their money.

Stuart said...

A tough one Brittany. Especially when you have a young child to protect. I think your duty as a mother comes first and you did the right thing by not confronting the issue directly. But in a way, some small good has already come from the episode as you've raised the moral issues in a lot of people's conciousness. I have some sympathy for John's point of view (but not the way he expressed it). It's easy to be pious when there's food in our belly. On the other hand, we are all humans together and have a collective duty to take care of this fragile planet. You'll find a way of registering the issue locally I'm sure. Even paradise has its problems....

Patrick Kiel said...

It's sad, confusing, but there are solutions which need to be found. As a young environmentalist and hopefully a future activist, I believe any endangered animal should not be hunted- no exceptions. Yet, I do have human morals, and I know he has a family to support. However, I also know a turtle is worth more alive than dead- snorkeling trips to tourists, benefit to ecosystem which will in turn produce a more stable supply of fish to support his family.

As you said, it is hard to catch a sea turtle with a line, but if you have multiple lines (long-lining) or have huge nets, sea turtles are easily trapped inside them. I personally do not know that many uses of sea turtles other than sea turtle soup, which is not that popular as far as I know.

Don't get me wrong, I am fine with catching fish for food- but over fishing, catching endangered species and not returning them to the ocean, or use of destructive commercial practices that take everything in its path is something I am very passionate about.

Patrick

Anonymous said...

Applying the principle of 'leave a clean wake' - I would not inject myself into what is a local legal matter.

Laura and Hans said...

The comment from that incredible jerk absolutely made my blood boil! As you mentioned, fish are plentiful, and maybe I've just become totally jaded over the years but I'm sick to death of these bleeding heart a$$holes. I love how it was all of a sudden your fault that someone couldn't feed their family (and does Mr. Smarty Pants have ESP? ). And I'm still not sure how your giving him a lap top would help so much. I would have reacted as you did; you're a young family in a foreign country and you need to be careful. Express your concerns in such a way that it can't be traced back to you.

Gary Cottam said...

And here is another mention...

http://boatbits.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/but-whole-lot-of-people-live-on-125-day.html

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much suffering a young american couple on a very well equipped yacht cause and have caused? hmmm..... maybe he who has not sinned should throw the first stone.

Dan and Michele said...

Brittany and Scott, just remember you can educate the ignorant, but you can't fix stupid (aka Mr. Clark). When dealing with people like this on internet in general, the #1 rule is always...don't feed the trolls under the bridge. They will derail you every time. Fair winds!

zombiecrush said...

I would have cried my eyes out, and then probably gotten really angry.

No one can claim "ignorance"... the people who live there FULLY KNOW they are critically endangered and that it is illegal to do that. He's just being a bastard. I would have called the cops.

Love SMS said...

This is a story of an old man who hasn’t been able to catch a fish for last 84 days. People start calling him “Salao”, worst form of unluck and make fun of him. A young boy believes in him and goes to fishing with man as he believes there’s a lot to learn from old man. Although he has to go for fishing with some other guys at end because of his parent’s will but he’s unhappy about decision and wants to be with old man. On 85th day old man goes alone and he catches a fish (which turns out to be a giant fish). Story turns around then when man has to spend 3 days in water and fish is not giving up to be caught. Old man eats small fish this time and he gets bruises in his hands. He thinks he’s going crazy and asks to be clear in head. He has slept very less. He talks to fish and consider him brother. How old man saves himself and fish from sharks.
To me this is a story where author has tried to explain how we constantly keep on fighting and explaining our inner friend/enemy. Where we explain why we did this, especially wrong and how much it matters to our lives. This is not just about my happiness or your hurt but many others whom we are treating.

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