A group of conservationists from the United States and Mexico on Wednesday asked Pope John Paul II to declare sea turtles to be "meat," as opposed to "fish," in an effort to halt the Mexican tradition of eating endangered turtles during Lent.
Wildcoast, a conservation group, estimates that as many as 35,000 sea turtles are slaughtered each year by poachers in Baja California to feed a black-market demand for turtle meat in Mexico and the United States.
At a downtown Los Angeles news conference, the team made a public plea to the Vatican, and to the Latino community in California, to discourage sea turtle barbecues; they reach a high point in celebrations leading up to Easter.
"Please don't harvest these turtles and don't eat them," said Adan Hernandez, a student and part-time fisherman from Magdalena Bay in Baja California. "We know it's crossing the border. We know that some [Southern California] restaurants offer it and it's reaching this area."
Hernandez was one of three members of a Catholic fishing group, called Grupo Tortuguero de las Californias, who signed a letter asking the pope to "officially clarify that sea turtle flesh is meat and inappropriate for consumption during Lent."
Turtles are reptiles.
The letter also requested that the pope "ask members of the Catholic Church to abide by the many worthy laws forbidding turtle capture and consumption in Mexico and the United States."
The killing of sea turtles has been prohibited by the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 1973 and by Mexican law since 1990. The penalties for turtle poaching in Mexico were raised in February from three years to a maximum of 12 years in prison.
But Homero Aridjis, an acclaimed Mexican writer and environmentalist who lobbied for the ban on turtle harvests in the 1980s, said poaching continues, often with the complicity of Mexican authorities.
Occasionally, Aridjis said, officials confiscate illegal turtle products, such as the 15,000 sea turtle eggs seized in a market in Mexico City earlier this month.
Aridjis suggested that a few words from the pope during a Mass scheduled for June in Mexico City would go a long way to bolster protection of the animals. The Mass is expected to draw 5 million people.
"In a Catholic country like Mexico, a statement could be very important," Aridjis said.
Wildcoast officials said sympathetic biologists in Italy are presenting the matter to a scientific committee at the Vatican.
Joaquin Navarro-Valls, director of the Holy See Press Office in Rome, did not respond to a faxed request for an interview.
For decades, conservation groups and U.S. officials have tried to enforce a crackdown on the illegal harvest of sea turtle eggs.
The eggs, stolen from sand-covered nests on beaches, are considered an aphrodisiac by some people in Mexico.
Some Mexicans believe sea turtle flesh has medicinal qualities.
Scientists now say the ongoing consumption of turtle flesh also is hampering the recovery of turtle populations--which still amount to a tiny fraction of their historic numbers.
Turtle meat isn't a staple of subsistence diets.
Rather, it is a food featured at special occasions and holiday feasts. Turtle meat fetches much higher prices than fish, driving a black-market industry that ships turtle flesh to Mexico's urban centers and to parts of the United States, according to Wildcoast.
But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, who investigate illegal importation of animals, said neither they nor U.S. Customs Service officers see much illegal trafficking of turtle flesh.
"We see small, noncommercial quantities occasionally," said Special Agent Lisa Nichols of the Fish and Wildlife Service in San Diego. "We don't have any indication that there are huge commercial quantities coming in right now."
Marie Palladini, a special agent with the Fish and Wildlife Service who works out of Torrance, said she recently made an undercover purchase of "sea turtle soup" from the back of a truck in Los Angeles.
"I sent it to the lab, and it turned out to be alligator," she said.
East Pacific green sea turtles, one of five species that feed or nest along the Baja California peninsula, are reputed to have the best-tasting flesh, according to fishermen and Wildcoast officials.
Wallace J. Nichols, a sea turtle expert, was tracking a 250-pound green turtle via satellite when it disappeared at Magdalena Bay. He later was horrified to learn that the animal ended up as the main course at a feast for 100 people.
Nichols, a biologist and co-director of Wildcoast, said that university researchers surveying fishermen and checking piles of discarded carapaces in dumps estimate that as many as 35,000 turtles are slaughtered each year along the Baja California peninsula.
"We need to work together as Americans and Mexicans to save the sea turtles," he said.