Did you know sea turtles are the oceans’ lawnmowers because they have a plant-based diet? Sea turtles also cannot retract into their shell like other turtles? They also can hold their breath underwater up to five hours, they live to about 100 years, and they have an awesome sense of direction. But did you also know that sea turtles are endangered? Some more than others, but they all are at risk of going extinct. Sea turtles have been on this earth for billions of years.
And although they have been around for so long, are they really being paid any attention? If someone were to say the statement “sea turtles are an endangered species and are at risk of going extinct”, would you know? Or would you be in shock because it was a subject no one ever really talked about? Green sea turtles, Hawksbills, Kemp’s ridleys, Loggerheads, and Leatherbacks are a few of the types of sea turtles that are at risk.
Many people do not pay attention to the issue of sea turtle endangerment because the problem simply does not have an impact on them.
But sea turtles are considered a “keystone species”, which means that they are an important species in their environment. So just because they might not have the biggest impact on human life, they have impacts on the lives of other animal species. If a keystone species is removed from a habitat, the natural order can be disrupted. Sea turtles also help control their prey.
Leatherback turtles help manage the amount of jellyfish in the ocean and hawksbill turtles help reefs by eating sponges that compete with them for space. They are also important because turtle nesting helps beaches. The nutrients left behind by eggs and hatchlings that do not survive, provide an important source for vegetation on the coast. They are also important for coastal economies and native communities. Many places rely on turtle watching or diving for jobs and income, and a number of communities look at sea turtles as a part of their cultures. Many people do not see the significance and importance of sea turtles and because of this they are in danger.
The different species of sea turtles have different threats. Leatherbacks’ biggest threats are getting caught in fishing gear, consumption of their eggs, and plastic pollution. Green sea turtles are threatened by consumption of their meat and eggs and coastal development. Loggerheads’ biggest threat is bycatch from fishing. Hawksbills biggest endangerment is the trade of their shells. Olive and Kemp’s ridley turtles are threatened by consumption of their eggs, getting caught in fishing gear, coastal development, and oil spills. Although each individual sea turtle species has its own threat to survival, they all have common grounds. So, what puts the sea turtles in danger? Causes of endangerment to sea turtles include global warming, predation of other animals, and human activities.
One reason why sea turtles are in danger is because of global warming. The effects of global warming are having huge impacts on sea turtles. One of the effects of global warming is that their nesting beaches are getting hotter. Hotter sand from increasing temperatures can result in decreased hatching rates or even complete nest failure. Sea turtles’ memories are imprinted with a magnetic map of the beach where they hatch, which gives them the unique ability to return to that same site years later to repeat their nesting ritual. “As the temperature of the sand in which eggs are laid strongly influences the sex of the developing turtles” (Shattuck, Foran). Typically, the eggs in the lower, cooler, part of the nest will become males, while the eggs in the upper, warmer, part of the nest will become females. If temperatures begin to rise, it is likely that there will be more female than male hatchlings, which can create a very significant threat to genetic diversity.
Global warming also puts sea turtles at risk because the change in temperature confuses the turtles, leaving their immune systems compromised which can lead to beach stranding, which is when the turtles end up stranded on the beach and often dehydrate (Shattuck, Foran). The warming of the Earth’s atmosphere is also a threat to sea turtles’ food supply. “During El Niño the surface waters warm up and the upwelling of cold water stops. The rising cold bottom waters bring nutrients to the surface and fuel algae growth, which drives the food train” (Spotila 162-163). The warm temperatures of El Niño suppress nesting activity by reducing food for the turtles. Warming oceans could also change the current of the ocean, potentially introducing sea turtles to new predators and harming the coral reefs that some turtles need to survive. This could also lead to the decline of prey for the turtles, leaving them with less food. The rising of sea levels from the melting polar ice also contributes to the loss of beach and sea turtle nesting habitat.
A second reason why sea turtles are considered in danger is because of the predation of other animals on sea turtles. For the most part, all sea turtles share a variety of predators. Kemp’s ridley turtles are in danger from human and nonhuman predation, Loggerhead turtles are in danger from raccoon predation on nests and eggs, and the green turtle is mostly in danger because of its high demand for eggs and meat (Committee on Sea Turtle Conservation et. Al). Sea turtles tend to use different habitats at different life stages, so generally each life stage has a different set of predators. Eggs and Hatchlings have the greatest variety of predators because they are so small and vulnerable and most of the time they occupy two different habitats: the beach and the sea. According to the book written by Ruckdeschel et. Al on page 23 they state that the potential for predation is high during the night that the eggs are laid, decreases during the incubation, and rises again at the first emergence. After hatching, turtles of all ages, both at sea and on land, are consumed by predators. “Many species from ants to jaguars prey on sea turtles” (Committee on the Sea Turtle Conservation et. Al). Predators of the Kemp’s ridley turtle include coyotes, raccoons, skunks, etc. Some predators feed on eggs from nests already opened by other predators or erosion. Hatchlings are caught and eaten on the beach by ghost crabs, vultures, hawks, etc.
In addition, the Kemp’s ridley and Olive ridley turtles’ nests are “only 38 cm (15 inches) deep at the top, so they can be found and dug up by predators such as dogs and many other animals. The major loggerhead turtle egg predator is the raccoon. According to the Committee on Sea Turtle Conservation et. Al, before protective efforts were initiated, raccoons destroyed 85% of the nests at Cape Sable, Florida in 1972 and 75% in 19973. Another way that the predation of other animals on sea turtles puts them in danger is because crows, gulls, and other predators attack sea turtles as they head towards the sea and are prey for waiting barracudas and jacks as they reach water (Blanchfield). Also, sharks and other large fish are important predators of many sea turtles. “Analyses of stomach contents of 404 tiger sharks showed that 21% of the sharks with food in their stomachs had eaten large turtles” (Committee on the Sea Turtle Conservation et. Al).
The third reason why sea turtles are being threatened is because of human activity. One human activity that puts sea turtles at risk is beach nourishment. Beach nourishment consists of pumping, trucking, or depositing sand on the beach to replace what has been lost to erosion. This can disturb nesting turtles and even bury turtle nests during the nesting season. “The sand brought in might differ from native beach sediments and can affect nest-site selection, digging behavior, incubation temperature, et.” (Committee on Sea Turtle Conservation et. Al). Another dangerous human activity is increased human presence. Resident and tourist use of developed nesting beaches can affect nesting turtles, incubating egg clutches, and hatchlings. According to the Committee on Sea Turtle Conservation et. Al, nesting beaches heavily used by pedestrians might have low rates of hatchling emergence, because of compaction of the sand above nests, and pedestrian tracks can interfere with the ability of hatchling turtles to reach the ocean. Poaching is another human activity that compromises the lives of sea turtles. Sea turtles are poached for their meat and sometimes their body parts. Its skin is often times used to make accessories such as purses, shoes, jewelry, etc. (Shattuck, Foran). In addition, sea turtle shells are often traded. Hawksbill sea turtles are recognized for their gold and brown shells. They have been hunted for centuries to make luxury items and as a result, these turtles are listed as critically endangered. Turtle eggs and meat are also illegally traded. Turtle eggs are considered to be an aphrodisiac in many places and their meat is still consumed even though both are illegal in most places.
Another human activity that endangers sea turtles is shoreline armoring. Shoreline armoring is the construction of barriers or structures for the purpose of preventing coastal erosion. “By altering water flow and erosion and deposition and creating physical barriers, some types of shoreline armoring prevents sea turtles from reaching their nesting sites on shore. Fishing also puts the sea turtles at risk. The development of highly industrialized fisheries contributes to the endangerment because “the most economical fishing method involves pulling multiple nets under water for extended periods of time” (Blanchfield). As juvenile sea turtles approach the adult stage, their risk of death at the hands of humans increases because they tend to start making habitats where fishermen work. Because of this, it is possible for a sea turtle to take the bait of a recreational fisherman or drown in commercial gill nets (Spotila 78).
The last human activity cause of sea turtle endangerment is pollution of the ocean. “The ocean is the final stop for much of the garbage generated on land” (Wroble, Kähler). Sea turtles are vulnerable to ocean pollution at all stages of life, from eggs to hatchlings to juveniles to adults. Pollutants can include things like toxic metals, petroleum products, and things such as fertilizers, chemicals, and untreated waste. They can cause immediate harm to the turtles through direct contacts, or can build up in tissues over time. Scientists believe that plastic bags actually smell like food to sea turtles because of the bacteria and algae that grows on them.
According to CNN Wire, until now, there were just theories that sea turtles may have accidentally gotten entangled in the plastic. Turtles also will mistake garbage in the ocean for prey, taking in plastics and other materials that cause digestive failure. Sea turtles can also be affected by ingesting food that is contaminated by oil or tar balls. A large percentage of dead hatchlings whose stomach contents have been examined have ingested tar balls, which form when crude oil floating in the water degrades. Also, polluted waters, particularly oceans with low water turnover, can cause the growth of potentially lethal fibropapilloma tumors on the eyes, skin, and internal organs of the sea turtles (Shattuck, Foran).
External tumors can create drag and slow turtles down, making them more vulnerable to predation and collisions with boats. Tumors around the eyes can mess up the vision of the turtles and can cause blindness to them. Tumors around the mouth can impair breathing and feeding. Pollution can also cause other diseases in sea turtles, such as parasites. Flatworms are frequently found in sea turtles in the stomach and bladder of the turtle. They can also get external parasites from pollution. Aside from the turtles themselves, pollution can also pose a threat to sea turtle habitats. Oil from spills offshore washes up on beaches where it can harm nesting habitats and can impact nests.
Sea turtles are much more than just another animal living in the ocean. They are important and have purposes that many people fail to see. They are part of cultures, are a keystone species, help control their prey in the environment that they live in, give nutrients to beach coasts, and are relied on for jobs and income. The three major causes of sea turtles being in danger of going extinct are global warming, predation of other animals, and human activity. But there are many things that can be done to help protect the sea turtles. One can avoid nesting sites by becoming aware of where the nesting sites are that way they do become more prone to being walked all over. An individual can also help by cleaning up the beach. Trash we leave on the beach often ends up in the ocean.
Although it may not seem like picking up one small piece of garbage will do anything, it can make a huge difference to the turtles. So make a difference and pick up trash that can be destructive to a sea turtle. One can also help by doing things such as filling in beach holes to avoid any sort of beach obstacles for the turtles, remove beach furniture and umbrellas that can keep baby sea turtles from making their way to the ocean, do not construct beach fires during hatching season, as sea turtles are known for being attracted to light which in some cases a sea turtle could crawl into the fire, leave turtle tracks untouched, be alert when boating and/fishing, and reduce one’s carbon footprint. Sea turtles are in so much danger but there is so much we can do to help them and get them off of the endangered species list. Humans would not like it if their environment was compromised and if they were in danger with their lives on the line, so why do it to the turtles when the littlest steps can be taken in order to help? Make a difference. Save the turtles.