LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A centuries-old Mexican tradition of eating sea turtles during the Lenten season is killing as many as 5,000 of the endangered reptiles each year, say conservationists launching a campaign to end the practice.
"The tradition has to stop," said Serge Dedina, a director of Wildcoast, a California-based conservation organization that has started a Spanish-language radio campaign.
The group is part of a coalition that has asked the pope to ban turtle meat, which many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans eat during "Semana Santa," or the days leading up to Easter Sunday.
"Many of the consumers consider sea turtle to be 'fish' because it swims. We humbly request that your holiness officially clarify that sea turtle flesh is meat and inappropriate for consumption during Lent," the Sea Turtle Conservation Network of the Californias said in a letter to Pope John Paul II.
"If the pope were to ban turtle meat, we'd support it," Ana Maria Castro, a spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said Wednesday.
But she added: "We cannot make it mandatory for a Catholic not to eat meat during Lent. It's up to his or her discretion. We can just recommend it as a religious observance."
As many as 35,000 sea turtles are slaughtered by poachers annually along the Baja California coast to feed black market demand, Dedina said, adding that some of the meat finds its way into the United States.
Meanwhile, studies have shown a huge decline in the numbers of mature females, who travel from as far away as Japan to lay eggs on local beaches.
The current local population may be only 1 percent of its historical size, said Wallace J. Nichols, another Wildcoast director.
U.S. and Mexican laws banning the killing carry prison sentences of up to a dozen years, but conservationists complain that poachers are rarely punished.
In addition to poaching, the species is threatened by pollution and hotel development on the beaches where the sea turtles lay their eggs.
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