Sea Turtles In Crisis

Image lifted from the BBCSome distressing news from the BBC: The population of the Pacific leatherback turtle has plummeted in the last 22 years, and the turtles could be extinct within a decade. Conservancy International announced the plight of the creatures at the 24th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Conservation and Biology. And while the Pacific leatherback is in particularly dire straits, virtually every other species of sea turtle is threatened and on the endangered species list.

Guam hosts nesting sites for several turtle species, specifically hawksbill and green sea turtles, but I’ve never heard of leatherbacks being seen in the waters around the island. While turtles are a protected species, they are quite uncommon on Guam since they are quite a delicacy. Green sea turtle is especially sought after. Just mention turtle to some of my friends and they will start salivating. And hawksbill turtles are sought after for their shell, to make exquisite shell jewelry.

Named for its smooth, leathery skin, the leatherback has graced ocean waters from the tropics to the Arctic since the time of the dinosaurs more than 100 million years ago. But scientists have documented a precipitous decline of the Pacific leatherback in the past two decades. Since 1982, their numbers have dropped from approximately 115,000 reproductive females to fewer than 3,000 remaining today, a decline of 97 percent.

“On land, the canary in the coal mine warns humans of impending environmental danger,” said Roderic Mast, Conservation International Vice President and President of the International Sea Turtle Society. “Sea turtles act as our warning mechanism for the health of the ocean, and what they’re telling us is quite alarming. Their plummeting numbers are, unfortunately, symptomatic of the ocean as a whole.”

The situation is critical, but scientists hope to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. Two particular areas need focused attention:

  • Nesting beaches require stronger protections and more careful management. Uncontrolled beachfront development and the poaching of eggs are threats to their survival. Lights on land present another threat, since turtles confuse them for the moon and walk toward them, leaving them stranded and unable to return to the ocean. Stronger protections to beaches in St. Croix and South Africa, for example, have allowed leatherback populations to begin rebounding.
  • The ocean needs greater levels of protection and the fishing industry needs to employ new and safer techniques. Currently, less than one-half of one percent of the ocean enjoys formal protection. Fishermen targeting fish species often unintentionally kill sea turtles as ‘by-catch.’ Small and inexpensive changes to fishing techniques, such as slightly larger hooks and traps from which sea turtles can escape, can dramatically cut the mortality rate.

Particularly deadly to turtle populations is long-line fishing. Long-lining is a practice in which ships extend up to 145 kilometers of fishing line with as many as 8,000 hooks, many of which unintentionally capture and kill sea turtles instead of their intended targets of fish.

This is terrible. Absolutely terrible. Sea turtles are the most inoffensive creatures I’ve ever encountered. They are slow, graceful grazers of the open sea. The world would be diminished by the loss of these species. Perhaps the challenges of the modern are too great for such an ancient and sublime animal though. Far too often people read something like this, shrug their shoulders and promptly forget all about it. The pressures of everyday life are too great to spare much concern for turtles in a far away place.

I feel no small amount of guilt in this myself, for I have eaten sea turtle several times in my life. But somehow I think the portion of sea turtle caught and eaten by Pacific Islanders is not too blame for this catastrophe. They have fished and hunted these waters for millennia with no adverse affects on the marine ecosystem. It is the modern world, with the development of coastal areas and factory fishing that strip mines the ocean of all life in the name of profits, these are the culprits in this debacle.

But all is not lost. Scientists and conservationists at the conference highlighted several international success stories that demonstrate that well-planned conservation efforts can halt and reverse the decline of the sea turtles.

For example, four Latin American nations, the United Nations Foundation, UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and Conservation International’s Global Conservation Fund are investing several million dollars over the next three years to consolidate a marine protected area that stretches from Ecuador to Costa Rica. Let’s hope this can stem the losses to the Pacific leatherback and bring the species back from the brink.