Of the millions of sea turtles which once roamed the oceans freely, only a fraction remain today. In fact, in the past few decades alone, the Pacific Leatherback Turtle population has diminished by 95%. When a female sea turtle is ready to lay her eggs she travels, sometimes over 1,000 miles away from her feeding grounds to come to the beach where she will make her nest. After she lays her eggs. she leaves her babies on the beach to grow, hatch and find their way back to the sea following only their own instincts. If they make it to the water without being eaten by a predator or captured by a poacher, they then must survive in the ocean alone among several dangerous predators. The natural life sequence of a sea turtle can be difficult and perilous on its own. Unethical, fishing practices, poaching, lack of education, coastal development and poaching are making it even harder for these little (and big) guys and girls to survive. Although there are many dangers to sea turtle survival, we as consumers and inhabitants of the coastal areas can help by becoming educated on these issues, changing any habits that may be further endangering these turtles, and joining a local or national conservation group to help keep these beautiful animals out of harms’ way.
Poaching and Illegal Trade of Meat, Shells and Eggs
All seven species of sea turtles are in danger of poaching for their shells, meat, eggs. Despite conservancy laws which protect sea turtles in most countries, poaching is still poses a great danger to sea turtles. Their meat and eggs are harvested for human consumption, and sold on the black market. They are even considered a delicacy in many countries and several communities wrongly believe turtle eggs to be an aphrodisiac. According to seeturtles.org, “educating local communities on the economic benefit of a live versus a dead sea turtle is essential to eliminating illegal trade.” There are conservancy programs worldwide initiating projects that will bring more money to local communities in tourism rather than harvesting the animals and selling them on the black market. In other words, to begin to eliminate the threat of poaching, conservationists need to help people understand that sea turtles are worth much more alive than dead.
In some communities around the world turtles are used in religious or cultural ceremonies. For example, the consumption of sea turtles was banned in Mexico in 1990; however, according to the National Wildlife Federation, 35,000 sea turtles are consumed every year in the Baja California Peninsula region alone. In the week preceding Easter, thousands of Mexican inlanders travel to the pacific coast in search of turtle meat and eggs; 5,000 turtles die in the coastal region during that week. The collection, sale or consumption of these turtle eggs is illegal in many countries. Sadly, the enforcement of this law is often lax in the face of rampant poaching.
Entanglement in Fishing Gear
Sea turtles are often victims of unethical fishing practices. Seeturtles.org claims that incidental capture in fishing gear (bycatch) is the number one threat to sea turtles and other marine wildlife. In fact, 40% of animals caught in fisheries are discarded as trash. In trawls (probably the most dangerous technique of mass fishing) 20 pounds of bycatch is caught for every pound of target species. This is especially tragic for sea turtles and other endangered species, because they are either cast aside to die, or thrown back into the ocean with, sometimes, severe injuries. Other large majestic sea animals like dolphins, whales and sharks are also frequent bycatch victims.
“Half of the worlds population lives near or within 100 miles of the coastline and this number will likely increase dramatically in the next decade,” claims seeturtles.org. Sadly, too much human activity on nesting beaches can cause serious problems for female sea turtles and their babies. Some of the major issues include, beach armoring (barriers built on the beach to prevent destruction of residential and commercial structures). Beach erosion and improper beach re-nourishment, and artificial lighting from homes and businesses on the water’s edge. Artificial lighting can disorient newly hatched baby turtles and lead them away from their natural path to the Ocean. Wondering around the beach, baby turtles can die from starvation and dehydration and they are also easy prey for coastal birds. To find out more about how coastal development directly effects the nesting habits of sea turtles visit:this page on the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
Pollution Plastic and Other Marine Debris
Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, wales and other marine mammals and more than 1 million seabirds die each year from pollution, ingestion or entanglement in ocean debris. Considering that this is an issue that is directly connected to us as consumers and hasty discarders of used or partially used goods, this is unacceptable. Our beautiful beaches and oceans are becoming more cluttered with the debris of our daily activities and we have the power to diminish this threat, by carefully choosing the products we use, and diligently practicing the three R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle). We should also practice being responsible beach goers by picking up our trash, toys, and equipment when we leave the beach (stay tuned for the upcoming blog, “What Not to Bring to the Beach”). In the Pacific Ocean, there lives the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a collection of ocean pollutants and debris that is, approximately the size of Texas! This garbage island in the middle of the beautiful Pacific Ocean, is said to be 20 feet deep and hold about 3.5 million tons of trash and could double in size in the next five years! We need to do everything we can to eliminate this threat to our beaches, our oceans and all the beautiful biological diversity of the oceans’ inhabitants.
Sea turtles and other marine wildlife are very vulnerable to the dangers of toxic chemicals, fertilizers, industrial runoff, heavy metals and more. Unfortunately for sea turtles, their areas of inhabitation overlap with popular oil extraction areas. This makes them more susceptible to petroleum pollution which is caused by intentional discharge from oil from vessels, accidental spills, and runoff from land sources. Sea turtles are also affected by ingesting oil and “tar balls” (formed from the degradation of floating crude oil . Many dead hatchlings, whose stomach contents have been evaluated, contained traces of tar balls.
Fibropapillomas is a life threatening disease in turtles which is thought to be caused by chemical pollutants in the ocean. The disease causes cauliflower shaped tumors on the soft parts of the turtles’ bodies. Tumors form around the eyes which impair vision and eventually cause blindness. Tumors around the mouth hinder regular breathing and feeding. When the disease was first discovered in the 1930’s, it was only found in isolated areas, but now it can be found in several turtle species world wide.
Brian Skerry, undersea photographer for National Geographic and ocean conversationalist, says that only one in 1000 Leatherback hatchlings will reach maturity, but that is only because of natural predators, like birds snatching up the hatchlings on their trek to the ocean, or predatory fish waiting just offshore. The odds for other species of sea turtles are similar. Luckily, female turtles have learned to compensate for these odds by having several clutches of babies during their lifetime, but “What they can’t deal with,” says Skerry, “are the anthropogenic stresses, the human things.” Stay tuned for the next blog, “Save Our Sea Turtles – Part II,” where we’ll talk about steps we can take in our daily lives to help preserve our oceans, our beaches, and the beautiful creatures we share them with.