Threats to Sea Turtles
A common question we are asked at Sea Turtle, Inc. is “why are sea turtles important?” This is a question with many answers. Sea turtles are important to ocean ecosystems. They maintain marine habitats, help cycle nutrients, and are part of a balanced food web. As they decline, it affects the health of the world’s ocean. It is up to us, as human beings, to be stewards of the environment and work towards conserving our oceans and stabilizing sea turtle populations. You can look up more information on individual species by visiting our About Sea Turtles page.
Unfortunately, human impacts are responsible for the rapid decline of sea turtle populations in recent years. It is important that we educate ourselves on the issues that are destroying our oceans and sea turtle populations. If we work to solve these problems, we can create a better marine ecosystem that will be mutually beneficial to humans and animals. Below, some of these issues are discussed. If you have questions about how you, your family, and friends can help, please contact Sea Turtle, Inc.
Poor Fishing Practices
We all love seafood! Unfortunately, fishing gear accidently captures thousands of sea turtles every year. This capture is called “bycatch” and it occurs when fishing equipment (nets, trawls, hooks) catch animals that they were not meant to catch. Historically, shrimp trawls and long-line fishing have been two of the biggest culprits for injuring and killing sea turtles. In 2010, a study conducted by Duke University reported data on marine turtle bycatch for the past 18 years. It showed approximately 85,000 turtles were reported as captured. The study however, only took data from 1% of the total fishing fleets in the ocean. This means that most likely the numbers from those 18 years were in the millions.
Today, shrimp trawls are required by U.S. law to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) on their boats. TEDs are small gates that allow large animals (turtles, sharks, etc) to escape the back of the trawl, while still capturing small animals like shrimp. However, not all countries or fisherman use these nets and until they do, many more sea turtles will continue to be captured. It is important to for humans to make ecologically responsible decisions when choosing where and from whom we buy our sea food.
Pollution/Marine Debris Consumption
Marine debris is defined by NOAA as “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment.” Plastic and trash in our oceans are a growing problem. While there is no exact number of how much trash is in our ocean, alarming satellite images show great garbage patches of floating trash forming in our water and growing larger every day. These patches are larger than the state of Texas. Not only does this trash get eaten by marine life, but plastics leech harmful chemical into our ocean and poison the water for everyone.
All too often, sea turtles mistake trash for the creatures that they prey upon. Many times these items are not thrown directly into the water, but are discarded on the land and get blown into the ocean by the wind or brought in by high tides. They are things we use in our everyday lives such as; bottles, balloons, plastic bags, and food wrappers. When sea turtles ingest trash it can make them very sick and even block their intestines, which can cause death! The photo to your left shows a stranded sea turtle on South Padre Island excreting a plastic bag. It is important to pick up trash, no matter where you are. Take your trash with you when you leave the beach and if you see something left by someone else, do the right thing and pick that up too. Try to reduce the amount of waste you produce. Use biodegradable plates, reuse your plastic beach toys every year, and bring reusable bags and water bottles to your beach days instead of plastic, disposable ones. These small changes in lifestyle will make a big difference in the health of our planet!!
Sea turtles are reptiles and breathe air. Although they can hold their breaths for long periodsof time, they do have to come up to the surface to breathe. When people drive their water vehicles (boats, jet skis, etc) carelessly, they can accidentally hit a sea turtle. Shell injuries are very life threatening, and often deadly. It is important to always follow speed limits and water safety laws when operating any water vehicle.
Destruction of Nesting Habitat
Humans are constantly building new condos, houses, and roadways on the coast. Critical nesting beaches for sea turtles are quickly disappearing due to erosion caused by these developments. Additionally, lights on building and roads can confuse night-time nesters and make them unable to find their way to the ocean. Even a fun day at the beach for humans can turn deadly for sea turtles. Humans often leave beach chairs, umbrellas, and toys on the beach for turtles to get entangled in as they are coming up to nest. Driving on the beach can also pose a threat to nesting sea turtles as they can get hit by cars. We can help sea turtles by cleaning up the beaches and removing trash, toys, umbrellas, or chairs brought to the beach. If you must drive on the beach, please drive slowly and look out for sea turtles, especially during nesting season. Also, during nesting season, please turn off lights on your beach house or dim them. Some beaches even have ordinances against bright lights so check your city and state legislation on those rules before visiting the beach!
Historically, sea turtles and their eggs were of cultural significance and have been a source of food for coastal communities. Today, sea turtle harvesting continue even though populations have declined significantly. Many countries have outlawed sea turtle hunting, but unfortunately the laws are not enforced and communities still continue to poach these animals. Additionally, sea turtles are killed for their shell and skin to make different products. Bright patterned shells (specifically from the Hawksbill sea turtle) are used to make jewelry, guitar picks, and other accessories. Leather made from sea turtle skin is often turned into boots, belts, and wallets. These products are illegal to buy, sell, or possess in the United States. If you are traveling to other countries, beware of these products and do no purchase them. Please do not support the harvest of sea turtles under any circumstances!
Fibropapilomas are a type of tumor caused by a contagious, herpes-like virus found in sea turtles. Although the virus has been around for decades in other parts of the world, the first documented cases were noted in Texas in 2010. It mostly affects green sea turtles, but is sometimes found in other species. This virus causes large fibropapiloma tumors to grow on the soft tissues of sea turtles. They can grow internally & externally, which can interfere with basic functions of their daily life and ultimately cause death. It is still unknown what causes the spread of this virus, but theories of its spread include marine leeches, invasive algae, agriculture run-off, and global warming.