Happy World Sea Turtle Day!

Sea turtle swimming in the ocean.
Photo by Giorgia Doglioni on Unsplash

World Sea Turtle Day is a day to honor and highlight the importance of sea turtles. It is on June 16th because that was the birthdate of Dr. Archie Carr, the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s founder and the ‘father of sea turtle biology.’

Sea turtles have been around for over 100 million years, as far back as the Cretaceous period and the dinosaurs. They spend their lives in the sea, except for nesting, and swim in almost all oceans. Sea turtles navigate through their sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic fields. All species of female sea turtles return to the same exact beach they hatched on to nest.

Leatherback sea turtle hatchling
“A leatherback sea turtle hatchling starts and begins its adventure into the vast unknown, to grow, to see the world, and to become its adult self.” Photo by Max Gotts on Unsplash

Endangered

Six out of seven species of sea turtles are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List. The 7th is listed as ‘data deficient.’

“Humans have caused sea turtle populations to decline
significantly all over the world.” -Oceana.org

Green sea turtle
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Importance

“Sea turtles are a fundamental link in marine ecosystems.” -World Wildlife Fund

Sea turtles keep the natural ocean environment and the food chain balanced. Following are specific ways in which they provide this balance.

Balancing the Food Chain

The largest sea turtles, the leatherbacks, consume up to 440 pounds of jellyfish daily. Loggerheads and Green sea turtles also eat them. As sea turtle populations decline, jellyfish populations increase. This not only affects humans, but it affects fish populations. “Declining fish stocks leave jellyfish with less competition for food, resulting in proliferation of jellyfish around the world. The increase in jellyfish is already proving detrimental to the recovery of fish stocks since jellyfish prey on fish eggs and larvae.”

Certain fish “clean” the barnacles, algae, and epibionts (organisms that survive by living on other organisms) from sea turtles’ bodies and shells, sometimes providing their sole food source. Without turtles, these organisms would have to find another, potentially unsuccessful, food source. “Species associated with a host, such as sea turtles, are important to generating and maintaining diversity throughout the world’s oceans.”

Sea turtles also provide food to many other species as prey. Many predators eat eggs and hatchlings, and even juvenile sea turtles. Sharks and killer whales sometimes eat adult sea turtles.

Last, but not least, some species, such as loggerheads, consume crustaceans. While eating they break the shells into fragments and create trails in sediment along the ocean floor, practices that both contribute to what is known as ‘nutrient cycling.’

Green Sea Turtle grazing seagrass at Akumal bay.
“Green Sea Turtle grazing seagrass at Akumal bay.” Photo by P.Lindgren on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Seagrass control

Sea turtles are one of the few animals that eat seagrass, especially Green sea turtles. It needs to be cut short constantly to stay healthy and to keep growing. Seagrass beds are important because they are the breeding and developmental grounds for many species of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans. Those species are consumed by many other species, so lower levels of seagrass impact the food chain, all the way up to humans.

Additionally, seagrass control provides balance to the ocean. “Without constant grazing, seagrass beds become overgrown and obstruct currents, shade the bottom, begin to decompose and provide suitable habitat for the growth of slime molds. Older portions of seagrass beds tend to be overgrown with microorganisms, algae, invertebrates and fungi.” The Caribbean has seen a sharp decrease in Green sea turtles and thus a loss of productivity in commercially fished species.

“All parts of an ecosystem are important, if you lose one, the rest will eventually follow.” -Sea Turtle Conservancy

Dune Protection and Prevention of Beach Erosion

Beaches and dunes do not get a lot of nutrients because sand doesn’t hold them. However, all of the sea turtle nests, eggs, and hatchlings don’t make it to the sea, leaving valuable nutrients behind, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, that allow the dunes to thrive. Even the eggshells from hatched eggs provide some nutrients. This is called nutrient cycling. “Dune vegetation is able to grow and become stronger with the presence of nutrients from turtle eggs. As the dune vegetation grows stronger and healthier, the health of the entire beach/dune ecosystem becomes better. Stronger vegetation and root systems helps to hold the sand in the dunes and helps protect the beach from erosion.” But as sea turtles decline, nests decline, and the beaches start eroding.

Additionally, sea turtle eggs, shells, and even hatchlings provide food for other species, which then redistribute the nutrients through their feces. Those nutrients also feed the vegetation that provides stabilization to the dunes.

Sea turtle swimming in the ocean.
Photo by Baptiste RIFFARD on Unsplash

Coral Reef Development

Hawksbill Sea Turtles, which eat a lot of sea sponges, help protect the coral reefs. “Sponges compete aggressively for space with reef-building corals. By removing sponges from reefs, hawksbills allow other species, such as coral, to colonize and grow.” Without sea turtles, sponges could start to dominate reef communities and limit the growth of corals, and altering the entire coral ecosystem.

“These amazing creatures are endangered by human interactions, both intentional and unintentional: fishing lines, nets, boat hulls, propellers, and plastic debris, which the turtles mistake for jellyfish and ingest.” -Joel Sartore

Sea turtle entangled in abandoned fishing netting.
Entangled green sea turtle. Photo by NOAA Marine Debris Program on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

What You Can Do

There are so many things you can do to help protect sea turtles! Here’s a quick list, but you can check out my article “Sea Turtles are Endangered” for detailed information.

      • Avoid plastic bags. This is a big one because turtles, especially leatherbacks, mistake floating plastic shopping bags for jellyfish, and ingesting bags kills them.
      • Stop using disposable plastic straws; decline them at restaurants. If you really must have one, carry a metal or glass straw with you.
      • Keep beaches clean. Litter on beaches prevents hatchlings from reaching the sea.
      • Turn off the lights.
      • Use coral reef-friendly sunscreen.
      • Buy sustainable seafood.
      • Do your part to slow climate change.
      • Reduce the chemicals you use in your yard and dispose of others properly through the hazardous waste collection in your area.
      • Don’t buy products made from real turtle shells.
      • Make turtle cookies. I know that sounds funny, but if you have children, cookies are a great conversation starter. Even coworkers would give you a few minutes of listening while enjoying them.
      • Educate others. Try the cookie trick.
      • Stop releasing helium balloons.
      • Recycle, or better yet, don’t buy plastic as much as possible.
Plastic bag floating in ocean, looking similar to a jellyfish.
Photo by MichaelisScientists on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Adopt-A-Turtle!

There are numerous programs that offer sea turtle nest “adoption” for donation. You can do a quick internet search to find one. I adopt a loggerhead sea turtle nest annually through the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island. For my donation, I receive a certificate, a car sticker, and regular email updates about the general nesting season, and information about the specific nest I’ve sponsored. The funds support their educational programs “which inspire people to care for the Lowcountry and all the plants, animals, and people who call this place home.”

Taped off with sign posted, Loggerhead sea turtle nest on the beach.
A loggerhead sea turtle nest on the beach on Hilton Head Island, May 2021. Photo by me

I hope this information was helpful, and thanks for reading. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Information About Sea Turtles: Species of the World,”

Article, “World Sea Turtle Day: 10 Things you Never Knew About Sea Turtles,” World Wildlife Fund UK, June 16, 2018. This is a quick read and is a great way to introduce the topic to children.

Article, “Drone footage shows 64,000 green turtles migrating to Cairns rookery,” The Sydney Morning Herald, June 10, 2020. The article shows a migration map for Green Sea Turtles.

Article, “Information About Sea Turtles: Threats to Sea Turtles,”

Footnotes:

The Endangered Species Act is now Endangered

Photo of a leopard.Photo by Patrick Shields on Pixabay

I don’t like to write about topics related to politics, especially in our current divisive and eruptive political environment. However, sometimes politics cross the line and challenges important and vital environmental protections. This week, the Trump administration announced that it was going to essentially reduce the strength of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Before I get on my soapbox, please realize that there are many species that would be extinct today if not for the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This includes the bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States. They were placed under protection through the ESA in the 1970s when there were only 400 pairs remaining. They were removed from the list in the 2000s because their population increased to 20,000 pairs. It took almost 40 years of educating people, hunters, farmers, as well as reducing the use of toxic chemicals for agriculture which inevitably makes their way into the food chain. This success story alone should be all we need to keep the ESA held sacred.

They’re moving fast on this as well – the new changes are expected to take place next month. Not many government changes go into effect that fast.

Black and white photo of a bald eagle.
Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash

Including Economics in Assessment

The New York Times article explained, “the new rules would make it easier to remove a species from the endangered list and weaken protections for threatened species, the classification one step below endangered.” The ESA previously did not allow for economic assessments when determining if a species deserves protection. “For instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat” would become part of the equation. This is dangerous because in government the short-term costs often outweigh the long-term benefits. This type of thinking could cause many species to become extinct.

“Over all, the revised rules appear very likely to clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live.” – NY Times

I can’t agree more! I champion this statement because it is exactly what’s going on.

According to the article, Erik Milito, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing the oil and gas industry, praised the revisions to the ESA. Of course he did.

We have to put nature first and make nature more important than profit and consumption.

Excluding Climate Change as a factor

While economic assessments will now be considered, revisions will go a step further by REMOVING the impact of climate change when evaluating how to best protect species. This is despite that study after study, CITES, the IUCN, and the United Nations have all determined that climate change is one of the critical challenges in protecting wildlife. A recent study in part from the UN declared that approximately one million species are at risk of extinction and that global warming is one of the biggest factors in wildlife decline and endangerment.

“The new rules also give the government significant discretion in deciding what is meant by the term ‘foreseeable future.’ That’s a semantic change with far-reaching implications because it enables regulators to disregard the effects of extreme heat, drought, rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change that may occur several decades from now.” – NY Times

Photo of rhinoceros mother and calf in South Africa.
Photo by Ken Goulding on Unsplash

Politicians Claim Revisions are for “Modernization” and “Transparency”

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the changes would modernize the ESA and make it more transparent, which is just BS. “Mr. Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, wrote that the act places an ‘unnecessary regulatory burden’ on companies.” He argued in 2018 that the ESA elevates protections for threatened species to the same level as those given to endangered species and that “we need creative, incentive-based conservation, but that becomes impossible with the current blurring of the lines between the two distinctions.”

The distinctions were created because of scientific foresight. If a particular species is declared “threatened” the ESA allows protections to be put in to place to prevent that species from becoming endangered. We cannot wait for species to become endangered before we do something about it.

Bernhardt also wants species to stay on the list for less time. The reason species stay listed as threatened or endangered is because they are not recovering in population, habitat, and health. The argument that the law is not reasonable because species are rarely removed from the list, is flawed. “Since the law was passed, more than 1,650 have been listed as threatened or endangered, while just 47 have been delisted because their populations rebounded.” That’s not because the standards have gone up! That’s because species are continually threatened and assaulted by a variety of human activities. Further, it seems that no one is looking at the numbers of species that went extinct while waiting to get on to the ESA’s list.

Photo of a sea turtle.
Image by Андрей Корман from Pixabay

This Is Not the First Time the ESA Has Been Attacked

Republicans have been working on relaxing and reducing this bill for several years, if not longer. I’m sharing a video of wildlife biologist and conservationist Jeff Corwin (@wildcorwin) testifying at a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee in July 2017:

“Historically, the [Endangered Species Act] was not politically-based. Remember, it was produced in an administration that had tremendous challenges. And if it wasn’t for Richard Nixon, and his policies, we would not have bald eagles today.” – Jeff Corwin

Black and white photo of an African elephant and calf.
Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay

“We celebrate the value of natural resources, going back to Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, through the work of Rachel Carson. And today, we as Americans, are unique and we have a such a splendid tableau of valuable species and landscapes. And it can only stay through wise, pragmatic, common-sense management, and I believe that the ESA is a big partner in that.” -Jeff Corwin

In response to this news, Corwin denounced the changes on social media:

“When we allow our political persuasions to destroy the very fabric of our country‘s wild legacy, then it will be our children that pay the ultimate price.”

Update (8/27/2019): I found this video of an interview with Jeff Corwin from the same date that I originally published this post:

You Can Help!

Everyone who knows even just a little about the Endangered Species Act knows that it has been overwhelmingly successful. So we have to fight this! Besides voting, here is a petition you can sign to help stop this! It will go to your state’s representative (it will ask you to donate but you are not required). I’m going to call my representative in the morning. We can be the change!

As always, thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

Weekend trip to Hilton Head Island

Sunset in Hilton Head
Sunset in Hilton Head

Our family loves Hilton Head Island (HHI) for a variety of reasons. First, my husband and I got married there. What drew us there before marriage was that dogs are allowed on the beach during the day, after Labor Day. But then we discovered some other things about the island, besides its natural beauty, cleanliness, and great restaurants.

One thing that impresses us is that there are no billboards or neon signs littering the landscape because ordinances keep signs low and unobtrusive. No building can be taller than the trees. Hilton Head also has a sea turtle protection project. The town requires light structures visible from the beach be covered or turned off between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am during nesting and hatching season, which spans May through October. Lights out for Turtles provides information for visitors that can promote the survival of the turtles.

Full rainbow!
Full rainbow!

We’ve taken many trips to HHI, including this past weekend, and we had a wonderful and relaxing time. Of course, we saw beautiful sunsets and sunrises. We witnessed a full rainbow, which was my first time seeing one (see my pitiful attempt at a panoramic image above). We saw a stingray trapped in a tidal pool, which was cool to see up close. But we alerted someone who was able to move it back to the ocean so that it didn’t die. And we saw a ghost crab up close – so cool!

A Clean Beach

I mentioned that HHI is very clean, especially compared to other beaches we’ve been. Since we are a family that cleans up litter and trash, we pay attention. So for a clean beach, here’s some of the trash we picked up and posted to Litterati:

Seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Well it wasn’t, comparatively. We found straws which I’ve determined to be the most evil single use disposable plastic thing in use! We found cigarette butts, pieces of Styrofoam, and microplastics. The image of the bag of trash was from a garbage can that blew over during high winds and the trash scattered. We collected all we could but it was far too windy to try and photograph each piece. The contents of that were mainly single use disposable drink bottles. We found some beach toys, as we usually do. (My friend in the South Outer Banks collects abandoned beach toys in her area). I promise we didn’t take these from someone! They sat abandoned for a long time, and I didn’t want them to wash out to sea during high tide!

Plastic Bag Ban!

On our last evening, we stopped at the ice cream shop. As I was paying, I saw a sign posted by the register, and I think I startled the clerk with my excited reaction!

Plastic bag ban ordinance in Hilton Head
Plastic bag ban ordinance!

The Town of Hilton Head Island passed this ordinance in January 2018. It does not ban all plastic bags, such as produce and meat bags; however, it is a huge, progressive step in the right direction. Eating my ice cream, I felt inspired – could I get that ordinance passed in my city? What a huge task that would be…but maybe I could do it.

I’m thinking it over. If I try for it, I’ll definitely be posting about it here regularly.

All photos in this post were taken by me.