The genesis of Turtle Island Restoration Network began when in 1987 young biologist and wildlife activist Todd Steiner traveled to Nicaragua to learn more about a cutting-edge sea turtle conservation program that sought to engage local coastal communities in long-term preservation efforts to save sea turtles.

In Nicaragua, Steiner found a group of dedicated biologists and community activists camped on one of the world’s most important olive ridley nesting beaches. These environmentalists were living under a tarp and working with almost no resources or access to the larger international conservation community.

Steiner started an all-volunteer grassroots effort to raise funds to purchase basic field supplies and research materials, and by 1989 launched the “Sea Turtle Restoration Project,” under the umbrella of the non-profit Earth Island Institute.  About the same time, sea turtles tags placed on turtles on Nicaragua’s nesting beaches started being returned by fishers in southern Mexico, and Steiner traced these back to a “legal” turtle slaughterhouse along the coast of Oaxaca.

“The annual migrations of sea turtles can be several thousand miles,” Steiner explained to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Protecting them in one spot and letting them be killed in another, doesn’t save the animals.”

Soon after Steiner mobilized an international campaign to outlaw and halt the commercial killing of sea turtles in Mexico.

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project has saved thousands of sea turtles and other marine species through hands-on conservation, policy change, and consumer change campaigns.

By 1997, the program had grown to include a full-time staff working at its headquarters in the Bay Area and an office and staff in Costa Rica and it became an independent organization called Turtle Island Restoration Network.

Turtle Island quickly grew to include another program focused on an issue close to the organization’s headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area  – California’s endangered wild coho salmon.

These fish ran from the ocean up Lagunitas Creek, hopping waterfalls and fighting upstream currents to reach calmer tributaries where they could safely spawn. But Roy’s Dam, aged and with a failing fish ladder, was blocking their route. The fish were trapped, flailing and thrashing, and trying hopelessly to get over the dam to their spawning grounds.

Seeing the problem, and a solution, Steiner stepped in and compelled federal fisheries managers to transport the fish over the dam.  Soon, Steiner formed the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN) to coordinate a multi-year effort with numerous partners to fix the dam.

Thanks to this effort the dam is no longer, and endangered coho salmon now jump through Roy’s Pools.

Turtle Island was fast turning into a hub of environmental activity and making a name for itself as a welcoming place for advocates, scientists, volunteers and interns alike.  The ‘Got Mercury?’ campaign initiated the first lawsuit to warn consumers about mercury in fresh seafood under California’s toxics-right-to-know law (Proposition 65).  It was a true test of the strength of the organization’s ability to mobilize the public to change their seafood choices in the marketplace.

And we succeeded.  Now, more than 100,000 people each year gauge their mercury in seafood exposure through our online calculator.  And imports and sales of swordfish – which contains the highest mercury levels of any common seafood – dropped significantly.

Today, Turtle Island remains true to Steiner’s original vision and is able to respond rapidly to environmental threats to our oceans, streams and marine wildlife. 

Programs now span the globe from the coastal waters of the Galapagos Islands to the sandy beaches of Galveston, Texas and include projects to protect sharks, marine mammals, seabirds from a myriad of threats from industrial overfishing, destruction of coastal and riverine habitat, and the threat of climate change from fossil fuel projects.  Each gives the public a chance to get involved in efforts to protect our blue-green planet. Learn more about our historic victories here.

Turtle Island Restoration Network is a nonprofit 501c3 organization.