Endangered Sea Turtles: Threats, Fishing, Eggs and Conservation

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loggerhead hatchings
In 1974, a 52-year-old woman on board a ship that caught fire and sunk 600 miles south of Manila, survived in the water for 48 hours, she said, with the help of a sea turtle "with a head as big as that of a dog." The woman said, the "turtle bit me gently every time I felt drowsy. maybe it wanted to prevent me from submerging my head in the water and drowning." When a ship finally showed up one rescuer mistook the turtle for an oil drum. "Someone threw her a life ring," he said. "The moment she transferred her hold to the ring, the drum sank. We did not realize it was a giant turtle until we started hauling the woman, for the turtle was beneath her apparently propping her up. It even circled twice before disappearing into the depths of the sea, as if to reassure itself that its former rider was in good hands." [Source: People Almanac II]

In return for such acts of altruism sea turtles have been killed for their meat, shells and leather. They are trapped in fishing net and coastal pollution poisons their coastal habitat. Their eggs are collected for food. Nesting sites have been lost to development and harvesting of eggs. There used to be sea turtles everywhere. The number of sea turtles in the Caribbean was so large that a member of Columbus's crew in the 15th century remarked the sea "seemed to be full of little rocks." According to one study which compared records of traders and pirates from historical times with modern research, more than 20 percent of the sea turtle nesting sites in the Caribbean have been lost completely and half the remaining ones have very small populations of turtles.

Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: “From Kemp’s ridleys no bigger than car tires to leatherbacks that can outweigh polar bears, six of the world’s seven sea turtle species are considered vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. The status of the seventh, the flatback of Australia, is unknown. [Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, October 2019]

Sea turtle deaths used to be determined by tallying up turtle products such as boxes of meat, carved hair pins and leather goods. It is estimate that Mexico alone used to slaughter 75,000 olive ridleys annually until the killing was stopped by a presidential decree. The Kemp's ridley sea turtle was once considered the most endangered sea turtle. Egg harvesting for the aphrodisiac market in Mexico City seems to have been a major reason why. Green turtles harvested for food off of the coast Nicaragua does not appear to diminish the species. The meat is shared within a village and the remainder is sold at a market.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems ; Monterey Bay Aquarium montereybayaquarium.org ; MarineBio marinebio.org/oceans/creatures

Threats to Sea Turtles

turtle entangled in a ghost net

Threats to sea turtles include bycatch in fishing gear, climate change, direct harvest of turtles and eggs, loss and degradation of nesting and foraging habitat, ocean pollution/marine debris, predation of eggs and hatchlings and vessel strikes.

It was once thought that the greatest threat to the survival of sea turtles was overharvesting of their eggs. But now many blame pollution and fishing. They are also sucked up by dredges and affected by oil spills, pollution and algae blooms. Says one biologist, "Losing an adult sea turtle is like breaking thousands of eggs on the beach." Commercial fishing is believed to be the No.1 cause of man-related sea turtle deaths. Thousands of sea turtles drown after getting caught in fisherman's nets. Environmental groups claim that nets on shrimp boats alone claim as many as 150,000 sea turtles a year.

Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: We’re chewing up nesting beaches by erecting oceanfront skyscrapers, hotels, and subdivisions. We’ve illuminated coastlines with disorienting streetlights. When turtles manage to find sand in which to lay eggs, bright lights often send them wandering. Some get hit by cars. Pollution, from oily toxics to plastics, spills into coastal waters. Straws and plastic forks get sucked up turtles’ noses. Hungry leatherbacks mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. [Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, October 2019]

Bycatch in Fishing Gear: A primary threat to sea turtles is their unintended capture in fishing gear which can result in drowning or cause injuries that lead to death or debilitation (for example, swallowing hooks or flipper entanglement). The term for this unintended capture is bycatch. Sea turtle bycatch is a worldwide problem. The primary types of gear that result in bycatch of sea turtles include gillnets and hook and line fisheries operating in coastal habitats. [Source: NOAA]

Loss and Degradation of Nesting and Foraging Habitat: A major threat to sea turtles is the loss of nesting habitat and coral reefs due to coastal development, rising seas from climate change, and pollution. Coastal development, including shoreline hardening or armoring (such as, seawalls), can result in the complete loss of dry sand suitable for successful nesting. Rising sea levels and more intense storms are leading to the erosion of nesting beach habitat as well as nest inundation. Artificial lighting on and near nesting beaches can deter nesting females from coming ashore to nest and can disorient hatchlings trying to find the sea after emerging from their nests.

Predation of Eggs and Hatchlings: The destruction and consumption of eggs and hatchlings by non-native and native predators (particularly feral pigs, rats, racoons, mongoose, feral cats and dogs) is a major threat to sea turtles around the world. In particular, burgeoning populations of feral and semi-domesticated dogs have accompanied the development of human coastal communities, resulting in the rampant consumption of sea turtle eggs and hatchlings around the globe.

Vessel Strikes: Sea turtles are at risk of being struck by various types of watercraft when they are at or near the surface. Increases in vessel traffic associated with coastal development and recreation can threaten turtles near the surface, especially in areas near ports, waterways, and developed coastlines throughout their range.

turtle eggs for sale in Malaysia

Beach Driving is a threat to the turtles and the nesting habitat. Driving on nesting beaches can injure or kill nesting turtles, eggs, and hatchlings. Nesting turtles can be difficult to see and they cannot move quickly on land to avoid an approaching vehicle. Beach driving also degrades the nesting habitat by causing sand compaction and creating ruts and ridges in the sand that pose obstacles to nesting turtles and hatchlings attempting to reach the ocean, resulting in an extended period of travel or entrapment.

Plastics and Pollution Increasing pollution of nearshore and offshore marine habitats threatens all sea turtles and degrades their habitats. Sea turtles may ingest marine debris such as fishing line, balloons, plastic bags, floating tar or oil, and other materials discarded by humans which they can mistake for food. Many sea turtles die by ingesting plastic bags which they mistake for jellyfish. They may also become entangled in marine debris, including lost or discarded fishing gear, and can be killed or seriously injured. In 2011, a green sea turtle has been found dead on a New South Wales beach in Australia with 317 pieces of plastic in its digestive system. Australian Seabird Rescue spokeswoman Rochelle Ferris says a 'teenage' Green Turtle found washed up at Ballina is the most shocking case she has seen in 15 years. She says there is no doubt the 317 pieces of plastic found in the animal's digestive system killed it.

Eating and Harvesting Sea Turtles and Eggs

The direct harvest of turtles and eggs is not as big of an issue as it used to be but is still a problem. Despite being protected under various national and international frameworks, the intentional killing of sea turtles for the wildlife trade and the harvest of their eggs, meat and shells is still widespread.

In many places especially in Latin America men eat turtle eggs as aphrodisiacs. In some places in Mexico they are sold on the streets for one dollar and eaten raw with lime and a pinch of salt. At one time turtles that nested on the Pacific, particularly in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, were killed and the eggs were harvested from their corpses and the bodies were sold for meat.

Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: “Turtle eggs are hot commodities in parts of Asia and Latin America. They may be boiled in soup, cooked into omelets, or dropped raw into a shot glass with lemon, tomato juice, and pepper. Eggs don’t bring huge dollars, but because most turtles lay 50 to 100 or more at once and leave long sandy tracks from sea to nest, they’re easy to find and steal in volume. [Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, October 2019]

olive ridley sea turtle heading pack to sea after laying eggs
Ostional, Costa Rice, where tens of thousands of olive ridley sea turtles come ashore to nest en masse, has long been a center of harvesting turtle eggs. “Ostional didn’t really become much of a community until sometime after World War II. But by the 1970s, settlers had come to rely on turtles. Soil nearby wasn’t great for farming, and there were few jobs, so residents plucked turtle eggs to feed their pigs. “Turtles were no more special to us than our chickens,” Maria Ruiz Avilés says during a break from labeling egg bags.

“Some countries still allow subsistence hunts for turtle meat. But even in countries where that practice has been outlawed, bans are meaningless without enforcement, buy-in from local residents, and alternatives for food or income. In Mozambique and Madagascar alone, for example, tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of both young and adult green turtles are illegally killed each year by hunters.

Climate Change and Sea Turtles

For all sea turtles, a warming climate is likely to result in changes in beach morphology and higher sand temperatures, which can be lethal to eggs or alter the ratio of male and female hatchlings produced. Rising seas and storm events cause beach erosion, which may flood nests or wash them away. Changes in the temperature of the marine environment are likely to alter the abundance and distribution of food resources, leading to a shift in the migratory and foraging range and nesting season of sea turtles. [Source: NOAA]

A warmer climate may also create too many females since turtle gender is determined by ambient temperatures in the sand where eggs are incubating. Cooler temperatures favor males, while warmer temperatures result in females. Changes to coral communities as a result of land-based runoff and coral bleaching events can negatively impact habitat and prey organisms. Recent evidence shows that global climate change is damaging coral reefs by causing more cases of coral diseases, which can ultimately kill entire coral reef communities. Many sea turtles rely on these coral reefs for food resources and habitat.

olive ridley sea turtle heading pack to sea after laying eggs
Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: “On a warm evening in a San Diego, California, bay, I watch a crew of scientists hold an adult green turtle while Camryn Allen quickly draws a vial of blood. For several years Allen, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has used hormones such as testosterone to track the sex of sea turtles. Here the ratio of females to males has increased slightly, but her recent work in Australia truly alarmed her. [Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, October 2019]

Raine Island, a 52-acre half-moon of sand on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef, is the biggest nesting island on Earth for green sea turtles. More than 90 percent of the northern Great Barrier Reef’s green turtles deposit eggs here and on nearby Moulter Cay. But Allen and her colleagues discovered that as temperatures have risen, female green turtles born on Raine have come to outnumber males 116 to one. “Seeing those results scared the crap out of me,” Allen says.

“It’s not the only threat climate change poses. As hurricanes become more powerful, they’re wiping out more turtle nests. Rising seas also are flooding nest sites and drowning eggs. And yet for all that, there are hopeful signs.Turtles didn’t survive 100 million years without developing strategies to weather hard times. They can slow their metabolism and go months without eating. Some females have skipped nesting seasons for years, only to show up again a decade later. New research suggests males may mate with many females when populations are stretched thin. And sea turtles may switch nesting beaches in times of stress. Allen’s initial fear has tapered off as she’s seen turtles’ versatility. “We may lose some smaller populations, but sea turtles are never going to go away completely,” she says. “I think turtles, out of all the other species, might actually have a pretty good shot.” They just can’t do it by themselves.

Sea Turtle Conservation

The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) forbids the trade of any turtle products on the international market, but illegal hunting continues to represent a threat to the species in many parts of the world. In order to protect sea turtles there needs to be international coordination and cooperation involving all nations that have sea turtle populations in their waters. [Source: NOAA]

baby leatherback

Great strides have been made bringing sea turtles back to large nesting sites and protecting smaller sites. Conservationists say the efforts to protect small sites is kind of hedge: if one of the large sites is devastated by a storm them then smaller ones can still be productive, they say. Olive Ridley turtles have made a comeback to nesting grounds in the state of Oaxaca in part because the nesting sites are watched over by armed federal agents. Nesting populations of marine turtles in Costa Rica increased by more than fivefold between 1971 and 2003 after authorities began protecting nesting females

Since 1977, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (U.S. FWS) Service have shared jurisdiction of sea turtles listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. (ESA). NOAA Fisheries leads the recovery and conservation efforts for sea turtles in the marine environment, and the U.S. FWS does the same for sea turtles on nesting beaches. [Source: NOAA]

To protect sea turtles NOAA is: 1) Working with partners to ensure compliance with national, state, and U.S. territory laws to protect sea turtles; 2) Cooperating with international partners to implement conservation measures and establish agreements, such as international treaties that protect sea turtles; 3) Researching, developing, and implementing changes to fishing gear practices and/or fishing gear modifications (such as, turtle excluder devices), using large circle hooks in longline fisheries, and implementing spatial or temporal closures to avoid or minimize bycatch; 4) Designating critical habitat areas essential for the conservation of sea turtles;

5) Protecting and monitoring sea turtles in the marine environment and on nesting beaches Conducting research on threats and developing conservation measures that reduce threats and promote recovery; 6) Collecting information on the species biology and ecology to better inform conservation management strategies and to assess progress toward recovery; 7) Conducting and supporting education and outreach efforts to the general public by raising awareness on threats to sea turtles, highlighting the importance of sea turtle conservation, and sharing ways people can help sea turtles; 8) Working with partners to study and raise awareness about illegal sea turtle trade

On the west coast of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, rangers from Pormpuraaw’s land and sea management program cover sea turtle nests with cages to protect them from feral pigs, which eat turtle eggs and hatchlings. [Source: National Geographic]

Studying Sea Turtles

To track the turtles satellite transmitters are attached to their shells. "Pop-up tags" continually measure the turtle’s position, depth, speed and direction. The data is stored digitally. After six months a minicomputer cause the release on electric signal that burns a magnesium wire, releasing the tag to the surface, where it releases a GPS locator signal. Satellites then find it and upload the data. One tagged female swam for 2,728 miles until its signal faded out. But even with these devises, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientist admitted "I don't know any branch of science where we have applied so much effort and learned so little."

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researchers collect eggs
Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: “In fact, it's often unclear how many sea turtles of each species remain — or how many is enough to ensure their survival. New research suggests that some population counts based on nesting beaches may be far too generous. But nest counts can also underestimate turtle numbers. “We need to understand a lot more about what’s happening in the water, where sea turtles spend 99 percent of their lives,” says Nicolas Pilcher, a sea turtle biologist who does fieldwork for governments and nonprofits.[Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, October 2019]

“Pilcher is piloting a boat across shallow seagrass beds about 50 miles west of Abu Dhabi. He’s conducting a turtle rodeo, chasing a green turtle as it zigs and zags just below the water’s surface. Near the bow Marina Antonopoulou, with Emirates Nature-World Wildlife Fund, perches on the gunwale. When Pilcher shouts the signal, she launches onto the carapace, trying to wrestle the turtle to the surface and into the boat. But it wriggles free. Antonopoulou stands in the water, frustrated but amused. Pilcher pushes on.

“Antonopoulou and a team of scientists, including some from the Abu Dhabi government, are cruising the U.A.E.’s Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve to gauge where these speedsters are headed. Near Pilcher’s feet a half dozen green turtles lounge. A quick surgical procedure will tell him whether these animals are male or female and ready to mate and nest. The team will attach tracking devices to some, then release them all. “We’re trying to link where these turtles live, which is here, with where they lay their eggs,” Pilcher says. That’s key to saving turtles.

“But turtles often feed in waters controlled by one government and nest on beaches controlled by another. This is especially true in the Middle East, where U.A.E. turtles may lay eggs in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, or even Pakistan. Conservationists and the Abu Dhabi government can’t negotiate with neighboring countries for more protection without knowing which turtles go where. That matters, of course, because development in the Middle East is booming, and “nesting habitat for turtles is continually shrinking,” Pilcher says.

Helping Sea Turtles

Sea turtles that have lost their flippers for one reason or another have been outfitted with prosthesis in efforts to get them back in the water. A green turtle named Alison, for example, was found off South Padre Island in Texas with only flipper and was unable to swim except of going around and around in circles. She was given a neoprene suit that fit over her shell and a carbon-fiber dorsal fin that allows to glide around with other turtles. It is believed that Alison lost her other three flippers in a shark attack.

Alison was helped by a group called Sea Turtle Inc., a Texas nonprofit group that rehabilitates injured sea turtles. In most cases turtles with three flippers can be returned to the wild. Two flipper turtles are usually adopted by zoos but one flipper turtle are often euthanized because they have difficulty just reaching the surface for air.

The Sea Turtle Association of Japan, a nonprofit organization in Japan that helps sea turtles, developed a pair or artificial front flippers for a loggerhead sea turtle named Yu-cha that lost her two front flippers in a shark attack. The team working on her, through trial and error, developed several pairs of prosthesis. Yu-chan was discovered by fishermen. The hope is to release her back into the wild.

Making Commercial Fishing More Sea Turtle Friendly

One measure being taken to prevent accidental turtle catches is the installation of Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs). These are funnels positioned inside nets so that only smaller fish can get caught. The sea turtles are too large to fit in the TEDS and so they are not caught.

There are gear restrictions and operational requirements to minimize bycatch and sea turtle handling and release protocols that minimize further injury and increase the chance of survival.. Shrimp boats in the United States and countries that export shrimp to the United States are now required by law to use nets outfit with TED trapdoor-like attachments that allows the turtles to escape. The TED is a panel of mesh webbing or metal grids at the end of the funnel-like shrimp nets that keeps turtles and large fish like sharks from entering and directs them to an escape hatch. Fishermen claim that devices cause them lose shrimp and money. In some places, fishing boats have been prohibiting from coming within two miles of nesting and feeding sites.

Circle hooks and finfish bait reduce the number of sea turtles caught and cause less injury to sea turtles that are hooked. Newly-developed round fish hooks baited with mackerel can reduce the rate of unintentionally catching sea turtles with long lines using traditional J-style hooks baited with squid by 65 percent to 90 percent. Fishermen are also beginning to attach timers to their trawling nets. The vast majority of sea turtles survive entanglements in nets as long as they are pulled from the water within 50 minutes. Relatively low tech “tow-time loggers” measure how long nets have been underwaters and record the data to let government officials know it the nets have been pulled up with in the 50 minute limit.

In Hawaii there are annual limits on the number of leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles that can be caught in the longline fishery. If either limit is reached, the fishery is closed for the rest of the year.

Discouraging People from Eating Sea Turtle Eggs

Around sea turtle nesting sites local people have been educated about the problems facing turtles. In many places people have responded by halting the practice of eating turtle eggs and participating in beach patrols to catch poachers. Sometimes the eggs are collected and placed in a safe place to hatch.

In an effort to debunk the notion that turtle eggs are aphrodisiacs an advertising campaign was launched in Mexico with a sexy Argentine actress who declared eating turtle eggs was not sexy. While the actress poses in a swimsuits the words “My man doesn’t need turtle eggs” appears “because he knows they don’t make him more potent.”

TED in action

Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic:“In most countries, sellingturtle eggs has been illegal for years. Yet in 2018, police seized a pickup in Oaxaca, Mexico, loaded with garbage bags stuffed with 22,000 turtle eggs. Malaysian authorities two years earlier intercepted four Filipinos in wooden boats carrying 19,000 eggs. The $7,400 those sailors stood to make was nearly three times the average yearly wage in their community. Egg theft is often linked with poverty or drug and alcohol abuse, Pheasey says. But the hope is that fake eggs could help stop organized traffickers. [Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, October 2019]

In 2007, police arrested six people suspected of trying to illegally sell more than 52,000 sea turtle eggs in southern Mexico. Associated Press reported: The five men and one woman were caught Friday transporting the eggs in dozens of plastic bags in the southern town of San Pedro Huamelula, Mexico's Public Security Department said in a news release. The department did not release any further information. Mexico is a major nesting area for several species of sea turtles, which are endangered and protected by law. Harvesting or selling their eggs is punishable by up to nine years in prison and fines. Still, officials seize thousands of turtle eggs at markets each year in Mexico, where they are considered a delicacy. [Source: Associated Press, August 25, 2007]

Regulated Sea Turtle Egg Harvesting

In some places local people are allowed to collect turtle eggs for legal use and domestic sale. In Ostional, Costa Rica, after Olive ridley eggs are legally harvested they are rinsed in the sea and sorted on table. The eggs are packed in plastic bags and shipped by truck to restaurants and bars around the country. Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: “The humans arrive at dawn. Barefoot men perform an odd step dance, bouncing gingerly heel to toe, feeling for loose earth with their feet. Finding some, they squat and dig until they reach eggs. Then teenagers and women begin filling bags....In Ostional, Costa Rica, olive ridleys nest so close together that they tend to crush and destroy one another’s eggs, so authorities allow local residents to gather some turtle eggs for their own use and domestic sale. The harvest and sales are regulated. [Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, October 2019]

“Costa Rica began trying to prohibit egg harvests in the 1970s, but enforcement was lax. Researchers eventually recommended an arrangement: a regulated, legal, domestic trade. So many turtles show up during an arribada that they dig far more nests than the beach can accommodate. Even without poaching, up to half of the eggs on the beach were being destroyed, mostly by other turtles. Costa Rica’s national government allows the few hundred residents of Ostional to legally collect a portion of the eggs.

“Today Ostional’s egg harvest is viewed by many as a success. Residents take a small number of eggs, and some biologists think ridding the beach of the excess keeps microbes from killing more. Sales pay for beach patrols and enforcement to keep poachers out. Paperwork follows every sale, so buyers know the eggs are legal. Invested residents drive off predators to help remaining hatchlings get to the sea. “We do a good job,” Ruiz Avilés says.

“That doesn’t mean this model should be exported. Demand for eggs here is a fraction of what it is in, say, Mexico. And arribadas here offer an embarrassment of riches, because culling eggs may help more baby turtles survive. “In my opinion, Ostional should never ever be taken as an example for conservation anywhere else — ever,” says Costa Rican Roldán Valverde, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University. While some experts suggest this legal harvest prevents far more eggs from being taken illegally, others fear that legitimizing any of this trade perpetuates the black market. Unfortunately, we’re stuck making decisions with imperfect information.

Fighting Sea Turtle Egg Poachers in Costa Rica

To fight poachers in Costa Rica, researcher Helen Pheasey fits decoy eggs with GPS transmitters, then slips them into sea turtle nests. Pheasey has tracked stolen eggs to commercial outlets many kilometers from nesting sites. On one day in 2019 near Guanacaste, Costa Rica, thieves raided 28 nests — a haul that included one of Pheasey’s fake eggs.[Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, October 2019]

Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: “The rain is just starting on a dark Costa Rican night when Helen Pheasey and I cut across a beach with a red flashlight. Pheasey, a Ph.D. candidate who studies the black market trade in reptiles, is working with a U.S.-based conservation outfit called Paso Pacífico. In her pocket she carries a fake turtle egg implanted with a GPS transmitter, and we’re looking for its potential mom. She gestures toward an olive ridley, alone and kicking up sand in the dark. As the pregnant turtle drops her eggs, Pheasey crawls toward the turtle’s tail, reaches into the mound of Ping-Pong ball–size eggs, and places the decoy in the middle of the pile. She’s hoping hurried egg poachers will nab her fake along with their intended loot.

“At 7 a.m. Monday, Pheasey watched on smartphone apps as her egg traveled from the peninsula to the back of a building on the mainland. After a delay, the egg moved again, to a neighborhood in San Ramón, 85 miles from the beach. Pheasey traced the route in her car. The egg had stopped at a supermarket loading dock. There it probably changed hands before being ferried to someone’s house. Pheasey and Paso Pacífico are still working out kinks in their tactics, but even if the decoy eggs show promise in fighting smugglers, that’s just one of the many problems turtles face.

Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project

At the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project center in Dubai, U.A.E. hawksbills and green turtles with injuries and health problems are treated, rehabilitated, and fater being a clean bill of health are set free. As of 2019, the rescue center had treated and released more than 1,600 sick and injured turtles over a 15 year period. [Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, October 2019].

Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: “To see all that’s hopeful and appalling about the way we treat sea turtles, there’s no better place to start than the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel in Dubai...Passing a fleet of white Rolls-Royces, I meet British expat marine biologist David Robinson. We take an elevator down to a parking garage and walk by Lamborghinis to our destination: a labyrinth of pipes and plastic pools, the intensive care unit of an elaborate marine turtle hospital. In one tub a green sea turtle struggles with internal organ damage. One floor up, sick, critically endangered hawksbills fill aquariums.

“The hotel housing this rehab center is owned by a holding group whose driving force is Dubai’s emir. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the architect of the region’s lightning growth, wants his city to become a model of environmental stewardship. But the reptilian miseries unspooling in this epicenter of consumption reveal much about the ills we humans heap on these creatures. Workers here have seen turtles with balloons lodged in their intestines, turtles with flippers broken after getting caught in fishing nets, a turtle bashed in the head and tossed off a boat. One female green turtle was struck by a ship just down the road, near the world’s ninth busiest seaport. The impact crushed her shell, carving out a jagged three-pound wedge as big as an iron. “People are doing this,” says Robinson, a former operations manager for this facility. “Everything — every aspect, every single species of turtle, every threat that they face — is anthropogenic.”

What You Can Do to Help Sea Turtles

Reduce Ocean Trash: A) Reduce marine debris and participate in coastal clean-up events. Responsibly dispose of fishing line — lost or discarded fish line kills hundreds of sea turtles and other animals every year. Trash in the environment can end up in the ocean and harm marine life. B) Reduce plastic use to keep our beaches and oceans clean — carry reusable water bottles and shopping bags. C) Refrain from releasing balloons — they can end up in the ocean where sea turtles can mistake them for prey like jellyfish or become entangled in lines. [Source: NOAA]

Keep Your Distance: A) Admire sea turtles from a respectful distance by land or sea and follow these guidelines: B) Don’t disturb nesting turtles, nests, or hatchlings. If interested, attend organized sea turtle watches that know how to safely observe sea turtles. C) Never feed or attempt to feed or touch sea turtles as it changes their natural behavior and may make them more susceptible to harm. D) Boat strikes are a serious threat to sea turtles. When boating, watch for sea turtles in the water, slow down, and steer around them. If you encounter them closer than 50 meters, put your engine in neutral to avoid injury. Remember, Go Slow, Sea Turtles Below!

Protect Sea Turtle Habitat: A) Beaches are paramount for healthy sea turtle populations since females come to the shore to deposit their eggs into nests. B) Keep nesting beaches dark and safe at night. Turn off, shield, or redirect lights visible from the beach — lights disorient hatchlings and discourage nesting females from coming onto beaches to lay their eggs. C) After a day at the beach, remove recreational beach equipment like chairs and umbrellas so sea turtles are not entrapped or turned away. Also, fill in holes and knock down sandcastles before you leave — they can become obstacles for nesting turtles or emerging hatchlings. D) Do not drive on sea turtle nesting beaches — vehicles can deter females from nesting, directly strike hatchlings and nesting turtles, damage incubating nests, and create ruts that prevent hatchlings from reaching the sea.

Report Marine Life in Distress: If you see a stranded, injured, or entangled sea turtle, contact professional responders and scientists who can take appropriate action. Numerous organizations around the country are trained and ready to respond. Learn who you should contact when you encounter a stranded or injured marine animal.

Conservation Success and Sea Turtle Resiliency

Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: “Sea turtle conservation has made great strides in recent decades in many places around the globe. In Florida and Hawaii, coastal resorts and hotels are reducing beachfront lighting. Use of devices that let unsuspecting turtles escape fishing nets helped save Kemp’s ridleys in Mexico and loggerheads in the Atlantic and is being tried in other areas. We’ve closed fisheries and changed commercial fishing hooks to prevent accidental snagging. A few fishing fleets employ observers who document turtle interactions. [Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, October 2019]

And...these beasts soldier on, despite the obstacles we place before them. Of the sea turtle nesting colonies that were reviewed in a recent analysis, more than twice as many were increasing as were trending downward. Scientists this year found that turtle populations protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act were on the upswing. Hawaii’s green turtles, long in trouble, are rebounding far faster than anyone expected. One turtle released from Robinson’s care after 546 days of treatment for a head injury made the longest documented journey by a green sea turtle. She traveled 5,146 miles, from the Middle East nearly to Thailand, before her tracking device finally gave out.

“Sea turtles, it appears, may be more resilient than once thought. “I’ve seen all sorts of crazy injuries, deformities, illnesses, and they just keep going,” says Bryan Wallace, who oversees sea turtle assessments for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “Where’s the dodo or the passenger pigeon of the sea turtle world?” While a few local stocks are in real danger of blinking out — Malaysian leatherbacks, for example — all seven species are hanging on regionally and globally.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated May 2023

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