Sea turtles, conservation challenges, and the role of NGOs in planetary welfare with Brad Nahill

sea turtles

Participants

Brad Nahill: President of SEE Turtles
Isabella Madrid Malo: Content Manager at Dots.eco

What is this episode about?

During this inspiring episode of the Land, Oceans, and Business podcast, we dive deep into the world of sea turtle conservation with Brad Nahill, president of SEE Turtles. Brad shares compelling insights into the organization’s efforts to combat threats to sea turtles, including plastic pollution and illegal trade, while highlighting the significant role of businesses in conservation efforts.

Questions covered

  • Tell us about yourself and SEE Turtles- What’s the story?
  • What is the biggest challenge you face when protecting sea turtles?
  • Tell us about the different conservation programs. What exactly is conservation?
  • Is there a right or wrong way to protect sea turtles?
  • How do you measure the positive effects of sea turtle protection?
  • What do you think is the role of businesses when it comes to sustainability?
  • What can we do as individuals to add our part?
  • What steps do you take in your personal life to add your part to the wellbeing of the planet?
  • How can people connect with you/SEE Turtles?

Podcast Audio

Podcast Transcript

[00:00:00] Isabella:
Welcome to Land, Oceans, and Business, where we explore the power of sustainability in the world of for-profit organizations and NGOs. On each episode, we’ll be bringing in different guests, both from the business and non-profit world. Each of them will have a new story to tell on their sustainability journey at their personal and professional level. Oh, forgot to introduce myself. I’m Isabella, your podcast host. Anyways, sit back, relax, and let’s make the world a better place together. Casually.

[00:00:20] Isabella
Hi, everybody. Welcome to the Land, Oceans, and Business podcast. This is our third episode, and I’m super, super excited because of the special guests we have in-house today. We’re going to be talking about sea turtle conservation and the role businesses have in it. Today’s guest is Brad Nahill, president of SEE Turtles, an amazing NGO that supports making a beautiful impact throughout the world. To give some brief info about sea turtles, SEE Turtles is helping coastal communities save millions of hatchlings on nesting beaches, clean up plastic, and reduce illegal sea turtle trade among many other things they’re doing. In this episode, we’ll be talking about sea turtle conservation, its challenges, and the role businesses play here, which is of course essential in the process. And of course, we’re going to be jumping into Brad’s personal steps in daily life to be more sustainable and what he’s doing as a lifestyle. So without further ado, let’s get the session started. Brad, welcome to the Land, Ocean, and Business podcast. We’re super happy to have you here.

[00:01:00] Brad:
Thank you. Yeah, I’m excited to be here. We’ve loved working with you guys and happy to chat about what we do.

[00:01:15] Isabella:
Nice. Amazing. Brad. So before we start and dive deep into the whole turtle world, tell us a bit about SEE Turtles. What’s the story of this amazing non-profit organization?

[00:01:26] Brad:
Yeah, so we’ve been around for a while now. This is our 16th year, which is just to have made it this long is a pretty good accomplishment. When we started in 2008, the organization was the idea of a good friend and colleague named Dr. Wallace Nichols. He had been working for a long time in Mexico with fishermen who were catching lots of turtles while they fished and looking for ways to catch turtles but also still survive. So they’ve been talking about, can they do tourism? Could they bring travelers there? And the fishermen were open to it. They said, they make more money, it’s a better job, but they had no idea how to find travelers to come down and participate in the conservation efforts. So his idea was, let’s start an organization that helps connect these communities.

I want to bring people there as an alternative to eating the turtles or catching them in nets and the people in the US who want these fun and unique experiences that give back to conservation efforts. And so when he pitched the idea to me, my work had been working on turtle nesting beaches in Costa Rica. And I’ve done quite a bit of work with the ecotourism industry. And so it was a perfect partnership of people with experience in different areas. We were really excited.

We launched the project that initially focused on that, connecting communities with travelers in ways that support conservation and the communities. But over the years, we have added in a bunch of other programs to expand our impact. A few years after we started, we launched a program called Billion Baby Turtles, which is a program that we’ve been working with Dots.eco quite a bit on, which supports turtle nesting beaches. Basically, we find these little communities that have important nesting beaches but don’t have funds for equipment to pay for people to walk up and down the beaches. We get them the funds that they need so that they can patrol those beaches, make sure nobody’s eating the eggs, helping the hatchlings get back into the water. And we’re really proud of that program. We recently passed the 10 million baby turtles saved, which is really fun.

Yeah. So it took us four years to reach a million baby turtles. And now this past year, we saved 4 million alone. So the number is really growing quickly. So we have a long way to go to get to our billion baby turtle goal. But the program is growing really rapidly, especially with support from great businesses like you guys. And then, yeah, over the years, we’ve added in other programs. We have a program that works to address the illegal tortoiseshell trade.

We have a program that I’d say the majority of this success, in our new sea turtles and plastic program, has been from you guys. You guys have been the biggest funder of that, helping to get plastic off of turtle nesting beaches, helping communities to invest in infrastructure to be able to recycle that plastic on site in ways that benefit them and conservation. And then, yeah, we have a number of smaller programs. We also have Sea Turtle Week, which we started a few years ago, which is a really fun week every June between World Oceans Day and World Sea Turtle Day, where we celebrate these amazing animals and talk about the issues that they’re facing. We reach millions of people every year and stuff like that. So yeah, we’ve been growing every year and increasing our impact every year

[00:05:00] Isabella:
Brad, that’s amazing. I’m a huge fan and we are all at Dots.eco big fans of the work you’re doing. And from the start, we loved the mission. We really believe in SEE Turtles and I think the work you’re doing and the evolution of it as well, right? Because it just started being a community that connects, as you said, local people with travelers, but now it’s been expanding to something much bigger than that. And now that you’re reaching the billions, that’s something huge. Brad, you mentioned something about plastic. Tell us a bit more about the struggle of plastic when it comes to sea turtle conservation because I feel like maybe for some people it’s not too obvious, the role of plastic for the conservation here.

[00:06:00] Brad:
Yeah, plastic is a big problem for sea turtles and our community has been on the front lines of that for decades. It’s really only been the past few years where the problem of plastic in the ocean has become more widely known and understood, but anyone that’s been working on a turtle nesting beach for decades has seen that plastic washing ashore, even in very remote places. Huge amounts of plastic can wash ashore. It comes from all over the world that, some places will do inventories and, they might be in Mexico, but they’re finding stuff from Japan, which is on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, which if you think about the way that the oceans move is pretty amazing. But so the thing that most people are probably familiar with, that’s a problem for plastic with sea turtles, is that they plastic bags as they’re floating through the water can look like a jellyfish to a sea turtle, their favorite food.

[00:07:00] Isabella:
Yes.

[00:07:01] Brad:
Sea turtles are wonderful animals. They’re not the smartest of animals and they haven’t learned how to tell the difference between a plastic bag and a jellyfish. And so if they see that floating through the water, they’ll often eat it. It can block their passages. Obviously it’s not food. So it can end up being a very big problem and possibly killing them. There’s a lot of other ways that plastic can impact them. They’re really impacted at every stage of their life cycle. Like I mentioned, there’s a lot of beaches that have a lot of plastic. For a turtle trying to climb up the beach and dig its nest and lay its eggs, having to crawl through plastic can be a problem. It could get tangled in it. The hatchlings, so the turtle crawls up the beach, digs a hole, lays her eggs, and then leaves. The hatchlings, when they emerge, if it’s a beach with a lot of plastic, can get caught in that plastic. They’re this big.

In cups or get tangled. And then a really big issue that we’re just starting to learn about how bad it is, is microplastic. When you see a cup or whatever on the beach, that’s macroplastic. That plastic can break down into really tiny particles that you can’t see. And if that ends up in the beach, it can do is it’s toxic itself because it’s made from fossil fuels. It can act as a magnet to other toxins. So it can bring toxins together. And so if a nest is in a beach, it has a lot of microplastic that can also affect the hatchlings as well. And they can also get tangled up in it as they’re swimming through the ocean.

One of the big plastic problems is discarded fishing nets. So if a fisherman has a net out at sea, a lot of times they’ll get tangled up or tear and break off. And so that net then continues to float through the ocean catching fish, but there’s no fisherman there to pull it in and release a turtle or another animal. And that’s what’s known as ghost gear. And that’s a really big problem for sea turtles and other ocean wildlife as well. So there’s really so many different ways that plastic affects sea turtles and other animal

[00:10:00] Isabella:
Yes. And in general, right? Because I think that the plastic issue with microplastics, as you say, is pretty new, but not that new. There is a lot of research already about how plastics are degrading, and breaking. And at the end of the day, these microplastics can be extremely toxic for any type of animal, for us as human beings. Even, I’m going a bit off the topic here, but things like consuming fish nowadays that we know that it has microplastics. What that’s doing to our body. So if this is happening to us humans, what can it do to animals that are living in that ecosystem, that habitat every single day? It’s insane the amount of information there is out there. What you’re sharing as well, I think it’s super valuable. I think I didn’t know lots of these, about the plastic situation. I personally thought it was more just in the water or in the beaches, but it goes further than this. There is so, so, so much about the plastic situation. What do you think is the biggest challenge that you’re facing when you’re trying to protect sea turtles? I’m guessing plastic is one of them, but another thing that comes to mind.

[00:11:00] Brad:
Yeah. Obviously there’s a lot of issues and a lot of threats to sea turtles. I feel like in terms of the hunting of sea turtles, eating of their eggs, eating of their meat that has declined over the past few decades as people have learned more about these animals and more people have gotten involved in their conservation. So I feel like that’s improved. Plastic is a huge issue and one that’s still growing, but I think we’re finally getting to the point where we’re realizing how big of a problem it is. And the efforts to combat it are finally getting to the scale that we will need. So I’m hopeful for that one over the long term.

The one that really keeps me and a lot of other turtle and conservation conservationists in general up at night is climate change. Even though we’ve known about that for decades now, we’re still increasing our emissions here in the U.S. They’re declining a bit, not quickly enough, but worldwide, they’re still growing and climate is a really huge issue for sea turtles. A lot of people think about bears or other animals that come to mind with climate change, but sea turtles are really affected by that as well. So if you think about rising sea levels inundating and eroding turtle nesting beaches, as the oceans warm, that causes coral bleaching. So the warmer the ocean temperature is, the coral polyps in their structures will eject. That’s why they turn white and bleach. Now that is a natural process that they can recover from. But it happens over and over again. And the oceans are getting hotter and hotter.

They will eventually die. The other big thing about that is sea turtles, like other reptiles, when the eggs are laid, the sex of that turtle is not yet determined. It’s determined by the temperature of the nest and where it is in the nest. And so under natural conditions, which in terms of temperature don’t really exist anymore, it’ll be an equal balance of male and female turtles. But there have been some studies done on beaches recently that looked at what is actually happening. And I know there’s one in Australia and one in Florida where they looked at it and every single hatchling was female because they’re the ones that result from higher temperatures in the nest

[00:13:30] Isabella:
So the higher the temperature, the more the probability of female hatchlings and then the lower for male. Okay.

[00:13:36] Brad:
Exactly. And so the fear is that we’re producing, we’re saving all these hatchlings and we’re getting them out into the water, but over decades and decades, it’s possible that we’re producing mostly or only females. And that’s not good for the long-term health of any kind of animal.

[00:14:00] Isabella:
No, of course not. Wow, Brad. That’s insane. That’s crazy. Especially with climate change, I think with climate change or the climate crisis, right? Because I really don’t like the name climate change anymore. I like to speak bluntly about what it is. And at the end, we’re having a crisis, right? What do you think is the role of businesses when it comes to conservation? And another question that comes to mind is what is conservation for you? There’s so much information out there about what conservation is, what it isn’t. So when it comes to sea turtles, what is conservation and what is the role of businesses in this?

[00:14:30] Brad:
Yes. Okay. So I’ll take the, what is conservation first? Conservation is basically what people can do to help ensure that wild animals continue to survive. My experience, conservation though, is more working with people than with the animals themselves. Obviously, it’s very important to learn about the animals, learn about their life histories and things, but really conservation is about the people that are the threats to these animals and the history of conservation in general. It also applies to sea turtles, has not always been very good at working with the communities and the people that are consuming the animals. For a very long time, there was always this belief that these local communities that eat wildlife are the bad guys and the animal lovers that come into these communities are the good guys. And we’ve really tried to, and we see the conservation community moving away from this, trying to learn about why someone feels like they need to eat a sea turtle or an egg or sell the meat or sell the eggs, sell the shells, things like that. The problems are so much deeper than just, oh, they’re eating turtle. They’re not a good person. A lot of these places, there are not a lot of alternatives to eating these animals and there’s very strong cultural and

[00:16:00] Isabella:
This was my question, Brad, actually, because to me people that are consuming the turtles. So my question here is, where do you think this is culturally something that happens normally, that is very standard, or that is just a situation that comes based on not having the resources?

[00:16:30] Brad:
They’re being consumed in most countries on a scale much lower than it used to be. I don’t want to exaggerate that impact now, but sea turtles and other animals have been food for people for most of the existence of humanity. And it’s a tradition in a lot of cultures. So we work with a lot of organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean in particular. There are plenty of indigenous communities that have always eaten sea turtles, but also revere them as in some places as ancestors or as gods, or some creation myths about the earth being created on the back of a turtle. Like for example, in Costa Rica where I worked, a lot of the Afro-Caribbean communities that were originally brought to Central America from Jamaica to build the Panama Canal, after the canal was built, they moved up the Caribbean coast and basically formed communities all along the coast around turtle hunting. And there was this huge worldwide business in turtle meat. They were exported to places like the UK and the US where turtle soup was a really huge thing. And so instead of these communities catching a few turtles for their own subsistence, it became big business and thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of turtles were exported and that really wiped out a lot of them. The real problem for the turtles isn’t eating a turtle in their community. It’s sending 100 or 1000 turtles elsewhere to feed the demand in other places. Now, that trade has ended and that demand in places like the US and Europe is almost nonexistent now, but these communities have still been eating their great grandparents and parents all ate them. What we, as conservationists try to do is help communities and help people understand the bigger global issues that the decline in the number of turtles and how they could disappear in general, but also to help find alternatives for people to be able to survive without eating turtles in ways that benefit them and the turtles themselves. That’s what we really look

[00:18:45] Isabella:
Yeah, and also if I may here, I think the issue is not the consumption of the sea turtles, but the mass hunting, the mass exporting, the mass commercialization. And that’s the issue in general with animal protein, right? This is what happens with cattle. This is what happens with sheep, fish, turtles, even, which is something I didn’t even know about myself. Because if we talk about in terms of indigenous communities doing it in a very ancestral way with awareness, which is what happens most of the times, versus just using it to fill in your pockets, that’s very different. That’s a very different story. So I’m really happy that you’re educating because it’s something that you are also doing. You educate a lot, the people that are traveling, the people that are interested in your conservation trips, which is something that I also want to talk about further on. But in the meantime, jumping to the other question I had about businesses, I think now it’s a good moment because businesses play a very big role in terms of softening up the climate crisis, helping NGOs, helping organizations do the job. So tell us a bit more about what you think the role of businesses are when it comes to sustainability, but also for sea turtle conservation.

[00:20:00] Brad:
Yeah, the easiest way, obviously, that a business can support conservation or try to fight the climate crisis is with money. In our economy around the world, money is needed for these programs, obviously. That’s the easiest thing that I think a business can do. And one that, personally, I think that all businesses should give back to the communities and places that they benefit from as a business. But to really go beyond that, I think is what’s really needed to help solve these huge global issues. Businesses can be part of the problem, but they can also be part of the solution. And we’re really starting to see more businesses really start to put an emphasis on reducing their own emissions, reducing the amount of plastic that they’re creating in general.

We can clean up every piece of plastic that ever arrives on a turtle nesting beach, but until we start using less plastic to begin with, we’re never going to solve that problem. So businesses play a really key role in that, first, making sure their own products are using as little energy as possible and powering it with renewables as much as possible, but also creating less waste. And also, we see a real strong connection between the natural world and local communities in terms of a business not only needs to treat the natural world by doing those things, they also need to treat their communities by paying people living wages, making sure that people have enough to survive and thrive on their own. And when people can survive and thrive in that way, then their need to take from nature is reduced as well. And I’ll say I recently gave a presentation to the sea turtle community. I was asked to talk about fundraising for sea turtles.

One of the examples that I gave in this presentation was our collaboration with you guys with Dots.eco. We really see that these micro incentives and the gamification of environmental impact as a really huge growth area and an area for just extraordinary potential. You guys have a really great model where you incentivize people for doing good. Each individual action might not save a million turtles, but when you have a thousand people or a million people doing these little actions, you can plant lots of trees, you can clean up lots of plastic, you can save lots of baby turtles. So yeah, we really think that you guys are on the leading edge of this way that’s providing so many people really concrete ways to help all these different issues.

[00:23:00] Isabella:
Thanks, Brad. Yes, at the end of the day, it’s something that comes down to businesses, but also to the individuals, right? If you don’t have individuals doing the work as well, it’s very hard for businesses to do it. And that’s what we’re trying to do. Not just working with the businesses, but as an end result, also impacting the end user, the players, the person starting in a new company, the coworking space members, someone ordering a meal and by ordering a meal, being able to plant the tree, these sorts of things are the small nudging that starts helping people understand the importance to become much more aware of it. So this is what we’re trying to do. We’re still pretty new, but we’re super happy to be working with SEE Turtles in this journey. It’s been amazing and we hope to be doing much more impact by educating and helping companies as well because sustainability is something that can be, as you say, businesses can be the problem, but can also be the solution. But they also don’t know how to help, what to do. And this is something that we love doing, bridging that gap for them so that we can accelerate this transition, not just for turtles, but for the whole planet. Which is what we’re doing here. You also mentioned the importance of the local communities, not just the climate crisis but also the people, right? And this is something that for me is super important. Every time I speak about sustainability, I really try to bring those together because without one there’s no the other. Brad, tell me, what can individuals do? What is something that we can do for sea turtle conservation? It’s very easy to work as an NGO, as a company, give out the money, but as people, what can we do?

[00:25:00] Brad:
Yeah, a lot of things, which is good. There are a lot of ways, even people that live far from the ocean, can help sea turtles and coastal communities. And so just like with businesses, the easiest thing that a person can do is write a check, pull out your credit card, make a donation. Those are always great. They’re always needed. There are a lot more that people can do. You mentioned before, and we haven’t talked about it a lot, but we run trips that go to these communities and people can join us and go to Costa Rica, Mexico, Galapagos, other places and work hands-on with these animals. When they come up to nest, help to measure them, help to collect the eggs. When the hatchlings are born, you can release them to the ocean. And just by visiting these projects and doing the volunteer work, you’re bringing money into those communities, which helps change the mindset. And I’ve seen this happen, communities that are based on consumption of turtles to conservation of turtles.

That’s a big thing that the trips are not inexpensive. But there are simple things that people can do every day in their lives, use less plastic to begin with, using reusables, purchasing products that are not made with a lot of plastic, avoiding single-use plastics in particular as much as possible, reducing your climate impact, whether that’s making your home more efficient, using a car less, using public transportation, electric vehicles. In the U.S. we passed a couple of years ago, a law called the Inflation Reduction Act. That’s going to be providing lots of money for people to put solar panels on their houses or to buy heat pumps, to reduce energy uses, to buy electric cars. So we’re really excited about that. That’s going to really help a lot of people make that transition because it’s also not inexpensive, but it’s cheaper for people over the long term to do these things.

[00:27:00] Isabella:
Exactly.

[00:27:01] Brad:
Just that the upfront cost is very expensive. And then one thing that I will plug is if people are going to be traveling to a place where there are sea turtles, the trade in their shells, the Hawksbill turtle shells known as tortoiseshell, even though they’re not tortoises, it’s still a big problem in a lot of places, particularly in Latin America and Asia. I actually have an example here. I was in a friend’s house here in Portland, Oregon, and I used their bathroom and they had some jewelry hanging and I found actual real tortoiseshell jewelry.

[00:28:00] Isabella:
You recognized it. Okay.

[00:28:01] Brad:
And I said, Oh my gosh, that’s real. And so I asked her, do you know where this comes from? And she said, yeah, it’s carey. And I said, yeah, carey is Spanish for Hawksbill. And this is comes from, and she had no idea. You look at this and you wouldn’t know that’s turtle. It looks like plastic or something else. But so we have a program we call Too Rare to Wear where we teach people how to recognize these products and to avoid them. Obviously, they’re illegal in most places or illegal to bring back to the United States, but the trade is still happening. So we created an app called SEE Shell. And if you Google SEE Shell, you can find it. It’s on Google and Apple stores and it uses artificial intelligence. You can snap a photo of a product.

If you see something when you’re traveling abroad, you’re not going to find it in the U.S. or Europe or Israel, places like that. But if you see something that you’re not sure about in a marketplace in one of these places, you can snap this picture and it’ll tell you with a pretty good degree of accuracy if it’s real or not. And so you can avoid it. And then we get that information and we can use it to try to help reduce the trade. There are a lot of things that people can do. And then one other thing I want to say is not only can you do these things, but as a consumer, you can make sure to purchase products that are more eco-friendly. And not only that, but use your voice, encourage these companies to reduce their climate impact and their plastic impact and things like that. And also advocate for legislation in your country to improve these things because without that pressure, governments and businesses in a lot of cases are not going to take action. So if they hear from you, they might. So that’s, using your voice is a really big thing that people can do. And it’s also free.

[00:30:00] Isabella:
It is, for business at the end. It’s the consumer, right? What the consumer wants is what the business has to do at the end of the day. And even though businesses have a very big role to play, the individual, when you add one person, one person, one person, then it becomes macro impact as well. So from both ends, there are things that we need to do. And the steps you mentioned are a great starting point, Brad. Brad, how can we connect with SEE Turtles? How can the listeners find out more about your mission? What you do, follow you. Tell us.

[00:30:30] Brad:
Yeah. Yeah, there’s our website, of course, SEETurtles.org. There is a different organization that’s SEA Turtles. We are SEE Turtles because we want people to go see them in ways that support their conservation. Our name is a kind of a play on words there. But we’re on all the social media channels at SEETurtles. So you can find us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn. Not on TikTok at the moment, we may be at some point. But yeah, you can find us and we post lots of tips and things that you can do, information about turtles, information about the programs and our sponsors, things like that on social media. You can sign up for our email list, so lots of ways to get in touch. People can feel free to email me as well. I’ll just give out my email, brad@seeturtles.org. If anything sounded interesting or you have any questions about our work, get in touch.

[00:31:00] Isabella:
Great, Brad. Thank you so much. I’m going to leave everything in the comments of the podcast so people have easy access. Brad, it was a pleasure having you in the podcast. Thank you so much.

[00:31:30] Brad:
Yeah, my pleasure. And thank you guys for all your great support. It was really fun joining you today.

[00:31:45] Isabella:
Of course. Take care. Have a great day.

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