The leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles, two critically endangered species in Puerto Rico, are one of the many that have fallen victim to the ever-present environmental catastrophe on the islands. Threats of pollution, erosion, warming waters, and the now-growing presence of coastal construction have slowly removed the species from their habitat.
Puerto Rican activists and residents have taken it upon themselves to call out the exploitative—and, in many cases, illegal—practices of wealthy residents and the tourism industry. Construction projects in areas that merit heightened ecological protection, such as the coast and other wetlands, cause irreparable environmental damage.
Speaking to Pasquines, Director of the Sea Grant program at the University of Puerto Rico, Ruperto Chaparro Serrano, stated that one of the main environmental concerns plaguing the islands is coastal erosion due to an accelerated rise in sea level.
“[Beaches] are an essential habitat for the hawksbill sea turtle,” explained Chaparro. “This [issue] goes hand in hand with new development measures on the coasts…as hotels, houses, condominiums, and walls are being built, along with the erosion, the sand has practically been lost, eliminating the area where the turtles would nest.”
In 2012 the islands, enduring economic hardship and seeking a means to boost its economy, enacted two laws, Act 20 and Act 22—intended as major tax incentives to promote foreign investment. These tax incentives have led to exorbitant rent prices in coastal towns, displacing generations of families and accommodating wealthier investors arriving on the island.
Locals and climate activists have been actively protesting coastal development and the privatization of public beaches. Protesters are not only advocating for the protection to access public beaches freely but also the effective end of luxurious construction projects on the eroding coast for the sake of wildlife.
Adrianna Amy-Delgado, 22, a resident of the northern town of Dorado, recalls how much her neighborhood has changed due to erosion and gentrification.
“Dorado has been well gentrified, and it shows,” she says. “Every time I return [home], I see more people leaving, and I see more empty houses.”
Although wealthy investors have been occupying the territory more often since 2012, the issue gained online attention when Puerto Rican artists Bad Bunny put YouTube star Logan Paul on blast in his ‘El Apagón’ music video for building a million-dollar mansion in Dorado beach in order to evade tax laws in the mainland.
“Funny enough, Logan Paul, who lives two blocks from Dorado del Mar [her neighborhood], when he started building his mansion (2021), I realized that a lot of people started to do the same,” explains Delgado.
She recalls how so many of her school friends and neighborhoods, noting that most were black and/or indigenous, were forced out of school or the island due to inflating prices. ThoseThose apartments that are occupied are occupied by people who travel to the islands once a year for a few months to get their fair share of sun and sand.
Delgado, apart from noticing extreme demographic changes in her neighborhood, has also noticed the heavy erosion in what was once a beach town.
“After Hurricane Maria especially, it is a flooding zone, and due to erosion, there is almost no sand; it is more grass and stones,” says Delgado.
However, for the leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles, the issue becomes especially dire in areas like the island of Culebra and Los Almendros Beach in Rincón.
In 2021, four congressional democrats urged the US Fish and Wildlife Service to declare Los Almendros a critical habitat for endangered hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles. Coincidentally, Los Almendros is an increasingly developed area, with new infrastructure being built every year.
AmongAmong several agencies set to ameliorate the issue is the Junta Interagencial para el Manejo de las Playas de Puerto Rico (JIMP, or Interagency Board for the Management of Puerto Rico’s Beaches). JIMP was created by Law 293 in 1999 to address the problems of security, conservation, and the adequate use of the beaches. In 2017, it was found that none of these mandates had been fulfilled, and the seven secretaries of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) who have served since and were responsible for implementing the law have yet to face any consequences. Today that issue is still present.
Chaparro was a community representative for JIMP for several years and believes his experience to be a reflection of how senselessly this issue continues to be addressed.
“[JIMP] was developed to make people believe that the government of Puerto Rico, specifically the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, was doing something to manage marine and coastal resources,” said Chaparro. “But it was never provided with an adequate budget to be able to carry out the functions and responsibilities that had been assigned to it.”
Over eight years up until their report in 2017, the board invested $70,723.57 in the management of the 1,225 beaches on the islands, as certified by the Finance Division of the DNER, which is 0.025% of what Tourism spent on promotion and marketing during that same period.
Today, these inefficiencies persist. Chaparro explained that the board still needs to have adequate legal representation, and therefore, it cannot implement the appropriate laws necessary to combat this proliferation on the coast.
“There is no one working on that board; all of them were volunteers from different agencies who were going to meetings to discuss the same thing,” explained Chaparro. “Because the board does not have a secretary, it does not have a budget; it has nothing.”
The most concerning threat to Puerto Rico’s beaches, and subsequently sea turtles, is the loss of coral reefs. High temperatures help increase sea levels because as water heats up, it also expands, making reefs more vulnerable to degradation and bleaching. During Hurricane Maria in 2017, coral reefs in Puerto Rico played a role in protecting against the storm’s impacts. Coral reefs act as natural barriers that can absorb and dissipate the energy of incoming waves, effectively reducing the height and intensity of waves reaching the coastline.
However, coral reefs are necessary to protect the natural environment year-round. In the case of the leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles, the reefs support a diverse array of marine life, including algae, seagrasses, sponges, and invertebrates, which serve as food for sea turtles.
Coral reefs also offer shelter and protection for sea turtles at various life cycle stages. This relationship is mutually beneficial because sea turtles, particularly hawksbill turtles, help prevent excessive sponge growth, ensuring a more balanced and diverse ecosystem. However, if these trends continue, the US leatherback sea turtle population in the Atlantic could decline by half within 30 years.
Despite the efforts of activists and leaders like Chaparro, the overwhelming loss of these creatures persists and continues to reflect an array of environmental issues on the islands, and it’s only bound to be due to current infrastructure practices.
“We cannot continue to permit these developments near the maritime-terrestrial zone while ignoring what is happening right in front of us,” said Chaparro.