Sea Turtles

Turtles have lived in the ocean for over 100 million years. There are currently seven species of sea turtles: leatherback, loggerhead, green, hawksbill, olive ridley, kemp’s ridley, and flatback. They can be found in all tropical and temperate regions around the world. Sea turtles range from shallow seagrass beds to colorful reefs to sandy beaches and loggerheads swim the deep seas, diving to depths of 1000m (3000ft)!

As reptiles, sea turtles require air to breathe and land to lay their eggs but they spend the majority of their lives in the ocean. After being born on the sandy beaches, they truly are adapted to life in the sea, coming ashore only briefly to bask in the sun or to lay their eggs. In between, they make huge migrations between their feeding and breeding areas – some travelling as much as 3,700 miles (nearly 6000km) each way!

Since sea turtles cannot breathe underwater, they have adaptations that allow them to hold their breath for incredibly long periods of time. When resting underwater, their heart rate slows to conserve oxygen – sometimes as much as 9 minutes pass between beats! This allows sea turtles to hold their breath between 4-7 hours at a time – the longest in the entire animal kingdom!

A healthy ocean needs sea turtles.

  • Sea Turtles are a “keystone species”; an important species in their environment that, if removed, disrupts the habitat and its wildlife. Sea turtles are essential to maintain seagrass beds and coral reefs which provide vital habitat for other marine life as well as keeping a balance in the food web.
  • For example, hawksbill turtles primarily eat sponges in coral reef ecosystems; without sea turtles to keep the population in check, sponges would overgrow and suffocate coral which is a much slower growing species.
  • Green turtles feed on seagrass and keep it healthy by increasing the productivity of the seagrass bed and its nutrient content. Seagrass ecosystems are an important habitat for many marine species as well as an excellent source of carbon storage.
  • Beaches benefit from turtle nests with the nutrients left by eggs and hatchlings nourishing coastal vegetation.
  • It’s estimated that only 1 of every 1000 baby turtles survive to adulthood. The animals that don’t are an important food source for both land and marine animals.

As adults, sea turtles’ only predators are sharks, orcas, and humans. However, due to the vast number of human threats, six of the seven species of sea turtle are listed as threatened and 3 of them are critically endangered.

Turtles are hunted as a food source for both their meat and their eggs. Despite being internationally registered as endangered, many coastal communities rely on them. This can be especially threatening during nesting season when the entire nest of eggs is removed for human consumption.

Turtle Shell Trade
Hawksbill turtles, with their gold and brown shells, have been prized for centuries to use for jewelry, decorations, and other crafts. The tortoiseshell trade has devastated populations of hawksbill turtles around the world. It is estimated that hawksbill populations have declined 90% in the last 100 years for this reason.

Destructive Fishing Methods/Bycatch
Approximately half a million sea turtles are accidentally caught by fishermen each year. Various methods of fishing (described below) do not discriminate between species and turtles are often caught as bycatch.

  • Trawls: A trawl is a large net that is pulled through the water or along the sea floor catching everything as it passes. If sea turtles are accidentally caught in the net, they are likely to drown as they cannot get to the surface to breathe.
  • Longlines: Longline fishing is a commercial fishing technique that uses thousands of baited hooks on lines several miles long. Leatherbacks, which primarily inhabit the open ocean, are often caught in longlines near the surface. And longlines on the bottom are a danger for loggerheads since they eat bottom dwelling species.
  • Gillnets: Gillnets are long walls of netting hung in the water to trap and hold fish. Sea turtles can also become entangled in the netting. Again, since they need to go to the surface to breathe, they will suffocate if held in a gill net for too long.

Habitat Loss/Coastal Development
Worldwide, many beaches are disappearing – from erosion, sand mining and coastal development. The loss of beach habitat takes away the nesting area for sea turtle females. They either give up and return to the ocean, or are forced to find different areas to lay their eggs which may not have ideal conditions. Even where beaches still exist, the noise and lights from nearby coastal development also discourages females from nesting.

If the nests are successful, once hatched, baby turtles can become disoriented in trying to make their way to the sea. They often find their way by the brightest light they see, the moon. With huge, well-lit resorts on beaches, hatchlings can head toward land; putting them in danger from dehydration, exhaustion, predators and automobiles.
Finally, along many developing coasts, people have built sea walls, added sandbags, and created other structures to protect their property from erosion. These man-made structures put a barrier between turtles and their nesting sites.

Marine Pollution
Thousands of chemicals and pollutants contaminate the marine environment; coming from a variety of sources such as cruise liners and commercial shipping vessels or fertilizer runoff from inland farms. These pollutants can accumulate in the tissues of sea turtles, affecting their swimming and brain functioning, and causing disease.

Plastic Pollution
Every year, eight million tons of trash enter the ocean, the vast majority of which is plastic. Plastic can be ingested by sea turtles; a recent study found that 15% of loggerhead turtles had ingested enough plastic to inhibit stomach function. A white plastic bag floating near the surface is easy to confuse with a jellyfish; a favorite food of some turtles. Similarly, larger plastic pollution, such as discarded fishing nets, pose entanglement dangers which can threaten turtles ability to swim, find food, and can even inhibit growth.

Invasive Species
Invasive species are species that have been moved into a new area where they don’t naturally occur and cause biodiversity or habitat damage. They can compete with native species for resources or become additional predators to local species. For sea turtles, non-native species on nesting beaches, such as fire ants, rats, foxes and domestic dogs and cats can dig up nests and eat sea turtle eggs.

Vessel Strikes
Since sea turtles must regularly come to the surface to breathe, they are at risk in areas with heavy boat traffic. In shipping lanes and during peak tourism months with recreational boaters, boat collisions are a major source of trauma for sea turtles. Injuries from boat strikes include amputated flippers, fractured shells, brain injuries and broken bones.

Climate Change
Climate change causes more severe storms which increase beach erosion (further losing habitat) and increase chances of flooding sea turtle nests.
Additionally, as global temperatures rise, the sand is also warmer. The sex of sea turtles is determined by the temperature of the sand when the eggs are developing. Females develop in warmer temperatures, males in slightly cooler ones. With rising temperatures, a disproportionate number of females will be born with fewer and fewer males.

Turn Out Lights
If you live near the beach, especially a beach where sea turtles are known to nest, turn off all lights visible from the beach. Artificial lighting can discourage adult females from nesting and it confuses baby turtles’ instincts and can cause them to head inland instead of out to sea. If turning off the lights isn’t an option, shield, redirect and lower the intensity of the lights on your property. And encourage neighbors and local businesses to do the same.

Reduce Waste
Reduce the amount of trash you produce. The less we use, the less ends up on the beach or in the ocean. Carry reusable water bottles and shopping bags and say no to straws. Don’t use balloons as they can end up in the ocean and be confused for sea turtle prey.

Reduce Chemicals
The chemicals you use on your lawn and in your home can wash into the ocean. Look for eco-friendly alternatives; and be sure to properly dispose of toxic chemicals you must use.

Beach Clean Up
Participate in beach clean ups to reduce debris that may entangle or be eaten by sea turtles.

Avoid Nesting Areas
Whether it’s where you live or on vacation, be aware of sea turtle nesting areas and avoid females laying eggs or hatching babies. Flashlights and people disturb turtles when they are nesting. Be aware of where nesting areas might be to avoid walking over them and causing damage. Attend only organized sea turtle watches that are responsibly and safely conducted.

Living Shorelines
If you have beachfront property, avoid building structures such as sea walls. Instead, use natural erosion protection such as plants, sand, or rock. Not only does this help sea turtles, but it improves water quality and increases biodiversity!

Support Organizations Making a Difference
Support sea turtle ecotourism. Book a sustainable tour to see sea turtles, especially if it benefits local communities and reinforces their stake in protecting these animals.
Volunteer or donate to any of the organizations dedicating their time to sea turtle conservation.

Be a Responsible Consumer
Be a responsible seafood consumer by asking where and how your seafood was caught; choose seafood caught in ways that do not harm or kill turtles. Ask restaurants and supermarkets to stock only responsibly caught seafood. There are a number of regional seafood guides which can provide information.
Only buy responsible souvenirs; avoid things made out of turtle shell, coral, or other animal products.

Clear the Beach
If you live on the beach, or when visiting, remove everything from the beach at night so that sea turtles aren’t discouraged from coming ashore or entangled once they do. Fill in holes and knock down sandcastles before you leave the beach to make the path of adult females and tiny hatchlings easier.

Boating and Fishing Considerations
When you are operating a boat in sea turtles’ waters, slow down to avoid strikes and, if a turtle is spotted, give turtles at least 50m of space.
If you are fishing, use barbless circle hooks to minimize chances of turtles being hooked and never abandon fishing gear in the ocean.

Many organizations do amazing work to educate people about the threats to all seven species of sea turtles and their habitats.

Learn more about some of these organizations, their work, and what you can do:

The Ocean Foundation
World Wildlife Fund
Conservation International

Cold-Stunned Sea Turtle Rescue, Texas, USA
In February 2021, record cold hit South Padre, Texas when an arctic cold-front reached this usually warm region. Thousands of sea turtles started to wash up on shore as the cold water slowed their heart rates paralyzing these reptiles. Volunteers immediately kicked into action bringing these turtles to a local rescue center. In all, through the efforts of volunteers, 4900 turtles were saved!

Green Sea Turtle Population, Eastern USA
In the US, green turtles were added to the US Endangered Species Act in 1978. Since that time, the population has made an impressive recovery in the region. In 1990, fewer than fifty green turtles were nesting at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s east coast. In 2013, after years of conservation efforts, this 20-mile stretch of beach hosted over 10,000 green turtle nests!

Turtle Excluder Devices
Turtle excluder devices (TEDs) were created several decades ago in the United States as a way to reduce the number of turtles caught in trawl nets. They provide an escape hatch for larger animals, such as turtles and sharks, while trapping the smaller intended catch in the net. In the Gulf of Mexico, turtle bycatch has been reduced by 44% since the widespread use of TEDs began. Turtle excluder devices are used in the US, Europe, Australia, India, Malaysia and their adaptation is spreading.

Black Turtle, Western Mexico
Black sea turtles, a subspecies of the green turtle found in the eastern tropical Pacific, were near extinction in 1960’s and 1970’s. In 1982, the University of Michoacan started a program to save these turtles through education and community involvement. The results: the number of nests on the beaches has climbed from a low of 170 to 30,000 nests per season!

Annual Kemp’s Ridley Stranding, Cape Cod, USA
Every autumn, around Cape Cod, Massachusetts, kemp’s ridley turtles, affected by the cooling ocean temperatures, are stranded on the beaches. In 1978, a coordinated sea turtle rescue program was created to assist the critically endangered turtles. Hundreds are revived and returned to the sea every year, over 500 in 2020 alone.