Sea turtles are endangered, which is probably not news to you, but the reasons why they are endangered may be new to you. According to a study done by Oceana.org, sea turtles “play an important role in ocean ecosystems by maintaining healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs, providing key habitat for other marine life, helping to balance marine food webs and facilitating nutrient cycling from water to land.” I don’t think I need to preach to you about their importance, but I do want to help people understand what we can do right NOW to help.
Sea turtles have been on the Earth for about 110 million years, and now human activities are to blame for their decline and endangerment. According to seeturtles.org, 6 of 7 sea turtle species are threatened or endangered due to human behaviors and activities. Here is a list of the biggest threats:
- Entanglement in fishing gear
- Poaching and illegal trade of eggs, meat, and shells
- Turtle Shell Trade
- Coastal development
- Artificial Light
- Coastal Armoring
- Plastic and other marine debris
- Ocean pollution
- Global warming
I’d like to delve into each of those a little bit more, to give you a bigger and better picture of what’s going on.
Entanglement and Bycatch
Entanglement is exactly what it sounds like, that is, entanglement in fishing nets and gear. Up to 40% of all animals caught in fisheries are discarded as waste. Bycatch refers to animals that were not the target catch – for example, dolphins getting caught in tuna nets. “Despite ‘Dolphin Safe Tuna’ labeling, approximately 1000 dolphins die as bycatch in the Eastern Tropical Pacific tuna fishery each year,” according to seeturtles.org. The World Wildlife Fund explains that “modern fishing gear, often undetectable by sight and extremely strong, is very efficient at catching the desired fish species—as well as anything else in its path.” Most often the animals die. There are some protected species, such as the dolphins I mentioned, but it is not a perfect system and the whole industry needs to find solutions. The number of turtles dying from these practices is not fully known, but it is estimated in the hundreds of thousands annually! It is a threat to all species of sea turtles.
What can you do? Try to only buy responsibly caught seafood. Inform and encourage your family and friends to purchase seafood only from responsible fisheries.
Poaching and Illegal Trade
In some countries, turtle meat and turtle eggs are a food source; in others, turtle eggs are collected by people for income in order to feed their families. Sometimes during nesting season, hunters will watch for nesting females. Once located, they will wait until the female turtle has finished laying her eggs, then kill her for the meat and take the eggs as well.
What can you do? If you travel somewhere, don’t buy food or products that use turtle, as that supports the practice. Organizations and governments are educating tourists and local inhabitants about the endangered turtles around the world. You can help by supporting the causes that protect and monitor sea turtle nests. You can help by spreading the information and helping to educate others about the problems. Participate in eco-tourism!
Turtle Shell Trade
This relates to poaching and illegal trade but is specific in regards to products made from turtle shells, aka tortoiseshell; and is usually specific to the Hawksbill sea turtles. Citing recent studies, the Sea Turtle Conservancy indicates that “scientists estimate that hawksbill populations have declined by 90 percent during the past 100 years.” This has been outlawed by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) which is an international agreement signed by 173 governments. However, the black market demand for turtle shell is still high.
What can you do? Don’t buy items that might be made from turtle shell or other turtle parts (including skin). Of course, those products likely won’t be labeled “turtle shell” or “hawksbill shell” but if you suspect, just say no and walk away. Unfortunately, the alternative is plastic, which I am trying to eliminate from my life. So be more minimalist and don’t buy either! You’ll remember your trip or vacation without a bunch of souvenirs anyway. Here’s a handy infographic put out by Travel For Wildlife to help you avoid turtle shell products:
They also made this very informative video, so please share it on social media with your friends and family!
Last, you can sign a pledge with Too Rare To Wear – I signed the pledge today! They, too, have wonderful resources about how to identify real turtle shell vs. fake. Again, maybe just don’t buy either – it’s not worth the risk!
Coastal development is exactly what it sounds like. “Half of the world’s population lives on or within 100 miles of a coastline and this number will likely increase dramatically in the next decade,” according to seeturtles.org. Human presence deters turtles from nesting where they would normally. Additionally, humans create pollution and waste – whether it’s litter or waste-water runoff, light pollution or danger from vehicles driving on beaches.
What can you do? Whether you’re just vacationing at a beach or residing there, you need to educate yourself about habitats in that locality. First, follow the girl/boy scout rule of “leave it cleaner than you found it.” That means to leave no trace! And pick up after other people too, because it’s the right thing to do. Second, always limit light on beaches (this will allow you to see the stars, too!). Are there conservation efforts ongoing? Are there laws prohibiting certain practices to protect turtles? If so, make sure you follow the laws or best practices. You’ll be making a difference. If you’re going to live coastal, this is even more important – search the internet for where you live so that you can do the right thing, and be the change.
No laws or conservation efforts where you live? How about starting those efforts? You can partner with a local aquarium; lobby city or town council to get signs posted near the beach access points; even host a local seminar at the library and invite residents!
As mentioned above, artificial light from human presence is a big problem for turtle nests. Sea turtles depend on a dark and quiet beach for nesting. If there is a lot of light, turtles will choose a less optimal nest site, which reduces the chances of the baby sea turtles surviving. Also, hatchlings have an instinct that leads them in the brightest direction which is normally moonlight reflecting off of the ocean. Excess lighting from the nearby buildings and streets draw hatchlings toward land instead, where they will likely die from predators, humans, or even swimming pools.
What can you do? Eliminate light whether you’re a property or homeowner, tourist, or beach walker. Make your property low light, don’t use flashlights or phone lights on the beach, and encourage others to do the same – especially during nesting season!
Here is a video from the Sea Turtle Conservancy about how to eliminate artificial beach lighting:
Beaches are beautiful and the place many people want to be, myself included, someday. Coastal areas are prime real estate and many beaches in the world have been heavily developed. Coastal armoring refers to sea walls and similar structures that protect real estate property, but they are harmful to sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy explains: “Sea walls directly threaten sea turtles by reducing or degrading suitable nesting habitat. They block turtles from reaching the upper portion of the beach, causing turtles to nest in less-than-optimal nesting areas lower on the beach where their nests are more susceptible to wave action and more likely to be covered with water.”
What can you do? If you’re a developer or building a home for yourself, please always first check with local legislation. Many coastal places in the United States already have existing legislation sometimes called Coastal Zone Protection, Dune Protection, or Dune Management. You can search the internet for the area you are residing in or visiting for information. If your area of interest has no protections or current legislation, how about proposing it to the local council or government? Please don’t build anything without first doing careful research – there’s a ton of organizations out there that can advise or point you in the right direction. Do your homework, and the turtles (as well as other wildlife and humans and the environment) will reap the benefits. Be the change.
Plastics and other marine debris
Well, this topic is what my blog is all about: plastics and other human-made waste. Hundreds of thousands of marine animals and fish, as well as over 1 million seabirds, die each year from ocean pollution and ingestion or entanglement in marine debris. This includes turtles. Most plastic waste reaches the ocean via rivers, and up to 80% of this waste comes from landfill-bound trash. How does that happen!?!? I’ll get into that in another post.
Plastic bags are a huge factor when it comes to sea turtles. Why? Because turtles eat plastic bags. They mistake them for jellyfish. Many species of turtles do not have taste buds, in case you’re wondering why they can’t tell by taste. See the videos below. The first one shows you the difference between a jellyfish and a plastic bag floating in the water.
The next video shows you turtles eating a jellyfish, to give you visual context.
What can you do? My number one recommendation for the first thing you should change to make a difference: use reusable bags only, and don’t accept plastic bags from anywhere! Getting rid of plastic bags does and will keep making a big difference on so many fronts, so I can’t stress this enough!
After plastic bags, start eliminating all plastics from your life, especially single-use disposable plastics. I have a ton of resources and My Plastic Free Life has far more! You can also buy plastic-free products from Lifewithoutplastic.com. Stop using balloons; don’t leave behind litter or beach toys when visiting the beach; participate in beach clean-up events (or do it on your own); refuse all disposable items. Be the change!
Although trash and plastics are one component, there are many, many other ways in which human activities pollute the ocean. Waste and by-products, like toxic metals, PCBs, petroleum products, agricultural and industrial runoff of contaminants such as fertilizers, chemicals, nutrients, and untreated waste; are all major problems for ocean and land dwellers. These are also causing major human health problems (many major diseases can be tied to these chemicals – again, another topic for another day). Oil companies are a big contributor to pollution, above and beyond oil spills. Oil companies are the devil, and I will explain that thoroughly in another post.
What can you do? Stop driving so much, or at least carpool. Use mass transportation. Ride a bike. (I, myself, have to work on this – I drive quite a bit.) Tell the oil companies to go to hell. Reduce how much meat you eat and how many animal products you use, because agriculture creates a lot of waste, methane, and chemicals. Buying from a farmer’s market locally or even growing your own food can reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticide chemicals from large producers that make it into our water (because smaller farmers don’t always use such harsh chemicals, and I doubt you do in your own garden).
This is a sensitive topic because it is so tied to politics these days. In my humble opinion, whether global warming is a natural occurrence or induced by human activities does not matter – it is happening! At an accelerated rate, which means many species cannot evolve or adapt quickly enough. This means the possible extinction of plants and animals and fish that are necessary to Earth’s balance. I’m not going to go into details about this topic, but please feel free to Google it and read up about it. For now, just know that it is a real issue, regardless of the cause.
What can you do? Use less energy and use less gas. Eat less meat and reduce your water use. Those are the first steps – start there!
Last, here is a quick list of 10 things you can do to help sea turtles from seeturtles.org.
I hope this lengthy post has been helpful. Please feel free to leave a comment or question or idea! Thanks so much for reading.