Guest contribution by Kathleen Martin
The first time I went out on a fishing boat to try and find endangered leatherback sea turtles, I asked the captain what I should be searching for. I knew what leatherbacks looked like. I’d seen a dead one and been awestruck by its enormity. And I’d seen many pictures. But this morning, as the daylight began to sparkle across the still water, we would be at sea trying to find the real thing.
The captain was securing a piece of rope. He stopped for an instant, glanced up at the horizon and said, “You’re just looking for something that’s not supposed to be there.” Then he went back to work.
It wasn’t exactly the kind of direction I was hoping for that morning. But it profoundly shaped my understanding of fishermen and their connection with the sea. In its great vicissitudes, the ocean is the landscape of their minds. What is an endless series of waves to most of us, is to them the gentle flop of a sunfish fin, a resting seabird, a seal having a peek around—and when we’re lucky, a leatherback’s head and ridged shell breaking the water’s surface.
This way of understanding the ocean can’t be taught in school. It is what binds small-scale commercial fishermen tightly to the future of the animals in the ocean. It is what has compelled hundreds of them to voluntarily help us conserve sea turtles over the almost fifteen years since my trip that morning. A passion for the sea and its inhabitants rests deep in their core.
I have spoken to thousands of people about our work with endangered sea turtles. In each of those presentations I say that the future of sea turtles depends on the cooperation of the fishermen whose gear poses the greatest threat to the turtles’ survival. And this gives me hope.