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:

Sea Turtles are Endangered

Last updated on June 5, 2021.

Sea Turtle swimming in the ocean. Photo by Erin Simmons on Unsplash.
Photo by Erin Simmons on Unsplash.

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 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 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. Six out of 7 sea turtle species are threatened or endangered due to human behaviors and activities. Following are the biggest threats:

    • Entanglement and Bycatch
    • Coastal development
    • Artificial Light
    • Coastal Armoring
    • Plastics
    • Beach (and Ocean) Litter
    • Ocean pollution
    • Global warming
    • Poaching and illegal trade of eggs, meat, and shells
    • Turtle Shell Trade
    • Adopt-A-Turtle

Let’s examine each of those further.

A green sea turtle entangled in derelict fishing gear at Pearl and Hermes Atoll.
“A protected green turtle entangled in derelict fishing gear at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Three green sea turtles were freed during the mission.” Photo by NOAA Photo Library on Flickr (NOAA News 2014 October 28), Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

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 protections for certain species, such as the dolphins mentioned above, but it is not a perfect system and the whole industry needs to find more solutions. “Each year hundreds of thousands of adult and immature sea turtles are accidentally captured in fisheries ranging from highly mechanized operations to small-scale fishermen around the world.” Companies that use devices called Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) are following regulations and best practices.

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.

Humans removing fishing line and hook from a sea turtle's mouth.
Photo by NOAA Photo Library on Flickr (NOAA/NMFS/Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center Blog), Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Coastal Development

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.” 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, educate yourself about habitats in that area. First, follow the 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!

Turn Off The Lights

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 too much 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 and encourage others to do the same – especially during nesting season!

If you’re walking on the beach at night, don’t use flashlights and phone lights during nesting season. Download a red flashlight app if you must have some light. If you live in a beach-front residence, turn your lights off. I’ve listed an article about turtle-friendly lighting under Additional Resources.

Here is a video from the Sea Turtle Conservancy about how to eliminate artificial beach lighting:

Coastal Armoring

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, humans, and the environment) will reap the benefits. Be the change.

Plastics

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. Recycle, or better yet, don’t buy plastic as much as possible. “Over 1 million marine animals (including mammals, fish, sharks, turtles, and birds) are killed each year due to plastic debris in the ocean. More than 80% of this plastic comes from land. It washes out from our beaches and streets. Plastic travels through storm drains into streams and rivers. It flies away from landfills into our seas. As a result, thousands of sea turtles accidentally swallow these plastics, mistaking them for food.”

Plastic bag from Walmart lying on the beach. I photographed this bag myself and yes, I did pick it up. At high tide that afternoon, it would've washed into the ocean and potentially harmed a sea turtle.
Plastic bag from Walmart lying on the beach. I photographed this bag myself and disposed of it. At high tide that afternoon, it would’ve washed into the ocean and potentially harmed a sea turtle.

Stop using disposable plastic straws and decline them at restaurants. Besides plastic breaking down into smaller pieces and polluting beaches and the ocean, these get stuck in turtles’ nostrils and airways. You don’t need a straw to drink most beverages. If you really must have one, carry a metal or glass straw with you.

Don’t release helium balloons! They burst and fall to the Earth or the sea, and sea turtles mistakenly eat the balloons and die. Or stop using balloons altogether.

Three people on a beach with over 100 collected balloons found during a beach clean-up.
“100 Balloons Collected at a Clean-up at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on the New Jersey coast.” Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Beach (and Ocean) Litter

Besides trash flowing into the ocean, litter on beaches prevents hatchlings from reaching the sea.

What can you do? Keep beaches clean. Don’t leave behind litter or beach toys when visiting the beach. I try to leave the beach a little cleaner than I found it, picking up trash that is about to wash into the sea with the changing tides. Participate in beach clean-up events or clean up with your friends or family.

Use coral reef-friendly sunscreen. Many of your average sunscreens have chemicals in them that are not only harmful to the ocean, but also to the human body. Look at the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Sunscreen Guide (see Additional Resources for the link).

Ocean Pollution

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.

What can you do? Buy less and consume less overall. Reduce how much meat you eat and how many animal products you use, because agriculture creates a lot of waste, methane, and chemicals. These chemicals make it into waterways and then the ocean, which poisons wildlife throughout the food chain. Buying from a farmer’s market locally or even growing your own food can reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticide chemicals that make it into our water (because smaller farms don’t always use such harsh chemicals, and I doubt you do in your own garden). Reduce the chemicals you use in your yard and dispose of others properly through the hazardous waste collection in your area.

Global Warming

This is a sensitive topic because it is so tied to politics these days. But global warming is real and happening, at an accelerated rate, which means many species will not be able to adapt quickly enough. This means the possible extinction of plants and animals and fish that are necessary to Earth’s balance.

What can you do? Reduce how much you drive. Perhaps try carpooling or using mass transportation. Ride a bike. Buy an electric car. Tell the oil companies to go to hell. Reduce the amount of energy you use. Avoid using fossil fuel energy whenever possible. Eat less meat and reduce your water use. Those are the first steps – start there!

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, 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. 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 shells is still high.

What can you do? Don’t buy items that might be made from turtle shells 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:

How to identify & avoid Hawksbill Turtle Shell infographic

They also made this very informative video, so please share it on social media with your friends and family!

You can join me in signing the pledge to avoid turtle shells with the See Turtles Organization. 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!

Adopt-A-Sea Turtle!

Last, you can symbolically adopt a sea turtle or a sea turtle nest. There are many of these, you’ll find many just by searching online but look for a reliable organization. Most of the programs help fund education about sea turtle nesting or protecting the nests themselves.

Turtle on beach, Photo by Isabella Jusková on Unsplash
Photo by Isabella Jusková on Unsplash

What other ideas do you have? Please feel free to leave a comment or question or idea! Thanks so much for reading. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Beachfront Lighting: Turtle Friendly Lighting Examples,”

Article, “What Can You Do to Save Sea Turtles?” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, accessed June 8, 2021.

Page, “Turtle Excluder Devices,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, accessed June 8, 2021.

Website, My Plastic Free Life.

Online store, Life Without Plastic.

Article, “Help Protect Sea Turtles!” See Turtles Organization, accessed June 5, 2021.

Article, “EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens,” Environmental Working Group.

Footnotes: