Sea turtle conservation

why is it needed?

Sea turtles inhabit almost every ocean on earth, and swim epic distances in search of food and nesting grounds. They have existed for many millions of years, and are supremely adapted to their marine environment. But sadly, today, six of the seven species of sea turtle are classified as endangered or threatened. And almost all of the threats facing them are a result of human activity.

Why are sea turtles endangered?

There are many reasons for the huge fall in sea turtle numbers. The sandy beaches where they nest are often in very beautiful, tropical locations – exactly the same kinds of beaches where humans like to live and vacation. Lights and noise from hotels and roads, as well as construction on the beach, or furniture such as sun beds, can deter turtles from nesting. As female turtles usually lay their eggs on the same beach where they themselves hatched, they will not just head off to seek out a quieter spot; more likely they will release their eggs at sea, where they will be lost.

Those that do crawl ashore may be captured by poachers; turtle meat is unfortunately eaten in many parts of the world, and the shells of some species are highly valuable as they are used to make tortoiseshell. Poachers also harvest the eggs, and the nests may be excavated by predators. Coastal erosion, storms and tsunamis also threaten the nests.

Threats to hatchlings

The most vulnerable period of a turtle’s lifecycle is when it emerges from the egg as a tiny hatchling. Predation by dogs, birds and other creatures is common on land; fish are ready and waiting to hunt them when they reach the sea. Unsurprisingly perhaps, estimates for the number of hatchlings that survive to maturity range from one in 100, to one in 10,000, but this has been balanced out by the huge numbers of eggs laid each season.
However, while sea turtles have had millions of years to adapt to natural predators, they have not yet evolved to deal with the modern world. Hatchlings find their way to the sea by looking for light – the sky over the sea appears brighter than the dark land behind. Unfortunately, roads, buildings and streetlights mean this is no longer the case; the artificial light lures the babies away from the ocean. If they crawl too far without reaching the water, and food, they will exhaust themselves and die. Beach furniture and structures block the hatchlings’ routes and also prevent them from reaching the sea.

Trouble at sea

The hatchlings that reach the water swim far out into the open ocean, and spend a decade or so floating around in patches of marine vegetation, which provides them with food as well as camouflage. But here, too, humans pose a threat. Turtles can be caught in fishing nets, and as they must surface to breathe, they will drown if trapped underwater. Others suffer horrific injuries as a result of being trapped in the nets, or hit by passing boats. Marine plastic is also an issue for turtles, just as it is for many other species. Plastic bags floating at sea bear an unfortunate resemblance to jellyfish – a favourite food for many species of sea turtle.

How to protect sea turtles

guidelines for volunteers & tourists

Given all of these threats, the first and most obvious step is to find ways to reduce them. There are organisations working across the globe, organising beach clean ups, carrying out vital research and patrolling beaches to protect the turtles and nests from poachers and wildlife. Crucially, they also work with local communities to raise awareness of the issues facing turtles, discourage them from eating eggs, and educate schoolchildren – creating the next generation of marine environmentalists.
You can donate to these organisations (your tour operator should be able to recommend a good one working in the country you are visiting), visit a turtle conservation project during your vacation, or sign up for a longer volunteer placement. This may involve taking part in nighttime beach patrols, counting and measuring turtles for data collection, litter picking or running after school workshops, for example.
To ensure the organisation is genuinely beneficial, you should check that it follows strict guidelines for turtle watching, and ask questions to ensure it has the turtles’ best interests at heart.

Conserving sea turtle habitats – at land and at sea – and protecting wild populations are definitely the best ways to take care of these species. However, some vacations and volunteer placements, usually in Sri Lanka, involve spending time at sea turtle hatcheries. These are a much more questionable method of conservation, particularly those which place hatchlings in tanks on the beach – which is something we do not promote.
Written by Vicki Brown
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Photo credits: [Page banner: Isabella Jusková] [Top box: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ] [Threats to hatchlings: Curtis Foreman] [Trouble at sea: USFWS - Pacific Region] [Turtle nest: Frontierofficial]