Sea Turtles, © William R. Curtsinger / National Geographic Stock

Mexico Protects Sea Turtle Nesting Habitat

Juan Carlos Cantu, Mexico Program Manager

Humans can regularly be seen on Mexico’s beaches, umbrella drink in hand. But we’re not the only ones who regularly hit the country’s beautiful sandy coastline. Literally, every sea turtle species on earth nests on Mexico’s beaches, save one that is only found in Australia. That’s why we’re known as the sea turtle capital of the world, and that’s why the way Mexico protects its sea turtles matters on a global scale.

Current Mexican law classifies all sea turtle species as endangered. But unfortunately this really only means turtles are protected from direct harvest—meaning they can’t be killed for their meat, skin, shell or eggs. Yet other factors pose serious dangers, including damage to and destruction of sea turtle habitat. Even nesting habitat, which is particularly important to the survival of these species, was not legally protected.

But not anymore, because in February, a new Mexican law (known as Official Norm-162) took effect, and it offers a whole slate of new protections for sea turtle nesting grounds in Mexico.

Previously, only the most important sea turtle nesting sites have been designated as sanctuaries and natural reserves, which allowed them some level of protection but left the majority of nesting habitat vulnerable.  But now, the new regulation extends habitat protections to all turtle nesting sites. Here are just some of the things that this new and unprecedented regulation has accomplished for sea turtle nesting habitat:

Protecting Native Habitat
The new regulation forbids the removal of native vegetation in the nesting habitat. When coastal vegetation is removed, especially from sand dunes, it allows increased erosion that could eventually destroy nesting beaches. In addition, some turtles like the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle even prefer to crawl up the beach all the way up to the vegetation to nest.

Putting Out Artificial Lights
The regulation also addresses one of the main factors that disrupt nesting turtles: artificial lights from houses, hotels and roads. These light sources can not only disorient nesting females, but they can be lethal to emerging hatchlings. As they climb their way up from their sandy nest, newly-hatched turtles look for the subtle light reflecting off the surf and waves to orient themselves towards the sea. Artificial lighting can point them in the wrong direction and when you are that young, one wrong turn can force you to use up your limited energy stores, leading to an almost certain death. Even those that eventually make their way to the surf can be too exhausted to swim away, becoming easy pickings for fish and marine birds. For the first time in Mexico, this new regulation calls for moving, changing or eliminating any light sources that illuminates a nesting beach or creates a glow that could disorient the females or hatchlings. These changes won’t happen overnight, but authorities are already informing beachside homeowners and hotels of the new rules.

Off-Road Vehicles
The new regulation also helps address the use of heavy vehicles on the beach. Heavy vehicles may compact sand, destroy nests and eggs, create deep ruts that can become traps for nestlings and basically tear up nesting beaches. No more. From now on, vehicles on nesting beaches have to be less than 300 kg in weight and can only be used for patrolling and management of the nesting site.

In the U.S., sea turtle nesting grounds are often carefully protected. (© Robert S. Donovan)

In the U.S., sea turtle nesting grounds are often carefully protected. (© Robert S. Donovan)

A less obviously threatening activity also outlawed by the new regulation is the release of newly hatched sea turtles. Many hotels near nesting beaches offer guests the opportunity to be part of the release of hatchlings into the sea. The problem is that they keep the hatchlings in confinement for many days until enough people sign up for the activity. So when they are released after being held in captivity, they are too weak to handle the surf or avoid predators. Hatchlings need to get into the water as soon as possible after hatching so they can use their limited energy to swim away. This tourism practice is now forbidden, and hatchlings have to be released immediately. Also for the first time, those who want to watch sea turtles laying their eggs during nesting season will have to follow strict rules.

All of these and many more regulations will help protect beaches, nests, female sea turtles, their eggs and hatchlings from now on. I am proud to say that Defenders of Wildlife played a key role in making this happen. We worked on this regulation for many years; in fact we were the ones who proposed its creation back in 2002. It took a decade of lobbying before we got the Environment Ministry to develop it, and Defenders is one of only four non-governmental organizations credited with helping to make these new protections a reality. It took a long time to get these regulations adopted but now when sea turtles hit Mexico’s beaches to nest, they will find it a safer place than ever.

20 Responses to “Mexico Protects Sea Turtle Nesting Habitat”

  1. Shelli

    I am so happy to hear about these new protections for sea turtles. I have spent many happy days on and around the beaches of the Yucatan peninsula and for the most part saw nesting sites that were fairly well protected but this can only be good news for those sites in heavy tourist areas that need better protection. Kudos to Defenders of Wildlife for helping to get this important piece of legislation passed and to the Mexican government for doing so.

  2. margaret Gottshall

    so happy to hear that they are being better taken care of I love all of Gods creatures he put here for us to enjoy to look at and be there for them

  3. Becky DeGrossa

    This is good news, however, how is this going to be enforced? I just watched a turtle lay her eggs. There were 20-25 people around her — within 4 feet of her. Flashes were going off the whole time. After the mother buried her eggs and began her trip back into the water, people were touching her, getting pictures with her. It was very disturbing.

    There were two men who were there to dig up the eggs to protect them — but they were fine with people flashing their cameras and even TOUCHING the mother as she went back to the sea. Having spent a lot of time in Hawaii, I’ve heard many times that we shouldn’t touch them — that we have human bacteria that they aren’t equipped to handle.

    It seems that the hotels along Cancun’s beaches need to take an active role in informing their guest to be more respectful of the sea turtle’s nesting process.

    Any idea about how to enforce this better? The conservation folks aren’t doing what they can, aside from moving the eggs to a safe place.


    • Juan Carlos

      Hola Becky,

      You are right, hotels need to take an active role. We have been working with the Municipality of Los Cabos and they have been engaging hotel managers explaining to them the new rules. They have started to change the way they work with sea turtles

      It takes a while for any new regulation to reach everyone and much longer for its compliance. Nevertheless it is very useful for anyone who sees an activity that is not according to the rules to complain to the hotel manager. They need to know they are not doing things right and that their customers are not happy about it.


      Juan Carlos

  4. Larry Collinge

    I was glad to find this blog and was reassured to see in writing that heavy vehicles are not permitted on turtle habitat beaches in Mexico. The discouraging thing is that there seems to be no enforcement on many beaches. I winter in Melaque (in Bahia de Navidad, Jalisco, and there is an ever increasing number of ATV’s. If anyone knows of a way to increase enforcement, please let that information be known. Mexican law enforcement is seriously inept, unless you want to pay someone off.

  5. Donna Walzer

    Twice we have been a part of the releasing of the baby turtles in Mazatlan. No cameras were allowed and there wasn’t a sign up sheet. In fact, it wasn’t widely broadcasted to the hotel guests, only a small notice. We rubbed our hands with sand, and we only touched the turtles when they were placed on our hands by the aquarium employees. Once the turtles were on the beach, we were not allowed to touch them. The procedure was closely controlled by the authorities from the local aquarium. We were told about the natural predators of the sea turtle, and it gave me an appreciation of the sea turtles that survived. With this new law I doubt if the hotel will continue to allow the guests to be a part of the turtle release. This particular hotel is interested in the preservation of the sea turtle, and educating the public.

  6. Tracey Y

    I just went to Cancun last week and I was really disheartened to see tourists trying to touch turtles and swimming literally right up to them. Another hotel guest even saw someone hugging the turtle and keeping it from getting air.

    On top of all this the Cancun airport has an ad on loop that shows kids releasing turtles on the beach. It is illegal to touch them isn’t it? If so, why are they advertising this? The hotels and tourism industry needs to step up their environmentalism and reduce their exploitation. Else there won’t be anything to exploit.

  7. Jrdelane

    I am this week a guest here in Jalisco at a prominent resort. They have a sanctuary and log in the rescued eggs the day they are laid. Tonight two tubs of babies will be released after dark. There was a nest missed last night and the bird predators destroyed all eggs, the beach sand was littered with remnant egg shells. The babies are being held in large plastic tubs in the shade and covered with a towel. I hope the babies aren’t exhausted by 12 hours of trying to escape the tubs. Great cause, informative blog!

  8. Skip Ackerman

    Juan Carlos: Thanks so much for your work on this.
    We live on a beach north of Los Barriles, BCS, where we have turtle nesting. The ATV culture around Los Barriles is out of control and there is no enforcement with beach driving. Just in the past 2 months we have seen a nest get run over numerous times, and dead nestlings in tire ruts on the beach (just in the past few days. We have had a group try and do something about it for years with no success, and have been harassed by ATVers and even the local police. Even WildCoast said the issue was too “complicated” to solve. It has been so discouraging that now we and some neighbors are only trying to do something about the small beach we live on, and still with no success. Most of the beach riders are Americans and Canadians and some Mexicans; and we have determined that enforcement is the only way they will stop this destruction of the turtle nesting habitat. There are 2 guys that transplant eggs in town and to the south, but they have no interested in even talking about the ATV issue on the beach. Can you help us in any way? Thank you

  9. Carol Papner

    Glad to see people are finally realizing we need to to protect all of God’ creatures

  10. Rodger Wood

    It is very encouraging to see that there is growing awareness and respect for the spaces that we share with other inhabitants of this planet. Several times I have found small turtles alive but trapped in the sea grass that has washed ashore at our home in the small village of Xcalak, QR. (seven kilometers north of Belize). I placed the exhausted turtles in a shaded tub of sea water for 24-48 hours. I then took them by boat to a coral head and released them. I watched them swim down to the protection of the coral head and then I left. Was that the right thing to do? What is a local organization where I could have asked for help with this project? Thank you for your efforts.

  11. Sal Silva

    Just got back from Cancun where my wife, 2 kids and I witnessed numerous turtles coming to shore to lay their eggs. I am so happy that my kids were able to witness these majestic creatures in person. I was sure to let them know how important these animals are and how we should always respect all of nature. I am sure that this event will remain in my kids memories for the rest of their lives. I was so proud to see how much compasion my kids had for the turtles. It was almost 19 years ago on our honeymoon that my wife and i were in Cancun and witnessed the baby turtles emerging from the sand. Now here we were with our own children witnessing the cycle of life. Truly amazing.

  12. Concerned

    I am currently traveling through Mexico and was approached, on the beach, by a man offering boat trips to visit the different beaches in Puerto Escondido and see wild sea turtles. After a short distance the young boy driving the boat jumped into the sea to catch a turtle, dragged it onto the boat and offered people to take pictures with it. It was obviously distressed and I couldn’t bear to watch, they then threw it back into the water and allowed people to ride on its back. I would like to know who I can report this to?!

  13. Outraged!!

    I was recently looking into a private snorkeling charter for our upcoming visit to the Riviera Maya. We always check for recommended tours on TripAdvisor, so when we started looking at the #1 tour available in Puerto Aventuras, I was in disbelief about the photos and comments from guests. One photo shows a Paradise Catamarans guide petting a sea turtle for the entertainment of the guests. Another photo shows a Paradise Catamarans guide feeding a sea turtle a ballyhoo to lure it into a crowd of snorkelers. The most disturbing thing was the question and answer section of Paradise Catamarans page. Guests are actually trading information about Paradise Catamarans allowing them to pet the sea turtles and the guides getting bait from charter boats to feed the turtles. This is sending a dangerous message . The guests are praising this company for allowing them to exploit the endangered sea turtles. Is this how you get to be the #1 tour? By allowing tourist do do whatever they want to endangered wildlife? I copied the links to the photos and the Q&A from Paradise Catamarans page if anyone cares to see for themselves. Just copy and paste the links and you will be shocked.;geo=153510&detail=815084&ff=187961491&albumViewMode=hero&albumid=101&baseMediaId=187961491&thumbnailMinWidth=50&cnt=30&offset=-1&filter=7;geo=153510&detail=815084&ff=160023900&albumViewMode=hero&albumid=101&baseMediaId=160023900&thumbnailMinWidth=50&cnt=30&offset=-1&filter=7

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