03/08/2013 03:22 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

Dignity: You Can't Stop the Tortugueros

Twenty years ago, as a graduate student, I presented a doctoral research proposal to a group of eminent scientists, experts and advisors: build a diverse sea turtle conservation network, fill the vast holes in our existing knowledge, and strategically communicate the solutions to restore sea turtle populations in northwest Mexico.

They said it was too ambitious, that it was too late for the sea turtles, and that there was no support for such a project.

These renowned experts told me to skip the turtles and study fish. I disagreed and quietly suggested that the proposed project was viable.

When asked to support that assertion with hard data, I had none.

"What makes you think it's worth wasting your time with sea turtles?"

"Dignity," was my response.

The dignity of the men and women I had met who live with the sea, along its coast, and survive alongside the turtles, would drive the change and save the turtles.

It was an absurd notion at the time that turtle hunters, fishers, and consumers might be the ones to save them too.

But in 1999 a few dozen of us -- fishers, biologists, business people -- gathered in Loreto to get our minds around the situation at hand. It was grim. Sea turtle populations were in free-fall and the black market for their eggs, meat, skin, and shells was thriving despite strict regulations.

We named ourselves the Grupo Tortuguero and vowed to fight together for the sea turtles. We agreed that everyone had a vote and the same voice and that anyone who shared our mission was welcome. We decided to meet each year in Loreto on the last weekend of January, respecting the schedules of fishermen and their families.

Each year we gathered like migrating turtles to their nesting beach. And each year there were more of us, with more successes and research to share.

We linked with colleagues in Sonora, Sinaloa, Michoacan, Cuba and Japan. We invited convicted poachers, governors, and rock stars. We ate, hugged, and danced.

As we grew in numbers, those resistant to change protested. They called us names, spread lies, said that we were a turtle cult, and threatened our members. But the group still grew. New projects were born all along the coast. Black turtles, olive ridleys, hawksbills, loggerheads, and leatherbacks were protected.

The numbers of sea turtles in the ocean and on the distant nesting beaches of Michoacan began to rise. People noticed. Sea turtle eco-tourism was born.

Change started happening, one person at a time.

Now in 2013 we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Grupo Tortuguero. And we recognize that our simple model has inspired our brothers and sisters around the world to protect their oceans.

By all estimates we are just half way to our goal and many of the same challenges facing sea turtles -- bycatch, poaching, development, and pollution--remain.

But protecting sea turtles in northwest Mexico is becoming generational and cool. People know that turtles are worth more alive than dead and that they represent ocean health, responsible fishing, and resilient communities. In northwestern Mexico people and sea turtles are, and always have been, intimately and intricately connected.

Grupo Tortuguero was, and remains, a very good idea: like-minded people hard-working together to ensure that sea turtles persist in a healthy ocean.

You can't stop a good idea whose time has come. And you can't stop the tortugueros.