Nearly every species of sea turtle is endangered, some of them at critical levels. That’s a remarkable statement, considering they’ve roamed the Earth’s waters and beaches for more than 100 million years and even survived the events that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Because humans are a major cause of their demise, it’s up to us to protect endangered baby sea turtles and help the population grow.
Why sea turtles are important for their ecosystems
Like most creatures, sea turtles do more than just look cute. They are part of critical ecosystems that support a variety of animals in the food chain and keep balance for both animals and humans. For starters, unhatched eggs and broken egg shells deliver essential nutrients to dune vegetation that are typically low in nutrient options. Strong beach vegetation results in soil support that combats erosion and protects beaches from disappearing.
Different species of sea turtles feed on different things, each benefiting the balance of marine biodiversity. For example, green sea turtles improve the productivity of seagrass beds, which in turn provide food for other animals. Similarly, hawksbill turtles eat sponges, keeping them from crowding out the slower-growing corals that many animals rely on. If sea turtles go extinct, the process creates a full circle where other species will also become endangered or extinct — including those that humans source for food.
Why sea turtles are endangered
Many types of sea turtles are endangered, but the eggs and babies are particularly vulnerable. During hatching season, thieves steal the eggs for profit, which is a devastating hit when it’s estimated only one out of every 1,000 hatchlings survives into adulthood. More mature turtles are also collected and killed for products such as oil, leather and shells.
Baby sea turtles spend their first 60 days or so in a nest on land before heading out to sea. Eroded coastlines, reduced vegetation and beaches full of litter add to the danger in their young lives.
Once they do make it safely to sea, the challenges continue with commercial fishing nets entangling them and destroying their habitat. Other forms of coastal development such as dredging, improvements for recreational and commercial marine traffic and construction cause additional risks.
Pollution in the water and on the beach is another major concern, with endless examples of turtle deaths caused by entanglement in discarded fishing gear or from ingested plastics.
Finally, climate change is a significant factor in the reduction of healthy sea turtle populations with increased severe weather events and the resulting loss of habitat. Plus, the temperature fluctuations can contribute to a change in sex ratios (the sex of sea turtles depends on the temperature in the nest) and can facilitate disease outbreaks.
Where sea turtles live
These creatures spend their entire lives at sea, except for the several times during hatchling season (every two to five years) when females come ashore to lay their eggs. When not actively contributing to population growth, they grace the waters around the Caribbean and Central America while looking for tropical beaches, but they can be found in nearly every ocean basin on the planet. Some species migrate across vast distances, moving from Japan to Baja California and back, for example. Leatherbacks span the waters from Chile to Alaska.
How you can help with endangered sea turtle conservation
As awareness grows, so do the efforts to protect these ancient and majestic animals. There are many ways you can help, starting with education. Learn more about sea turtles and the dangers they face, from ocean plastic to warming temperatures. Then see where you can best contribute.
One option is to donate to nonprofits that are on a mission to protect sea turtles. Check out the Sea Turtle Conservancy, Turtle Island Restoration Network or the Sea Turtle Foundation. You can also support location-specific organizations like the Cozumel Marine Turtle Salvation Program, The Barbados Sea Turtle Project or Hawai’i Wildlife Fund.
If you’re looking for more of a hands-on experience, there are many volunteer opportunities where you can learn more while actually getting your feet wet on the beaches of Costa Rica, Belize, Cuba, Galapagos or Baja, just to name a few. Get involved with an organization to help monitor nests, place trackers on babies, perform in-water surveys, protect seagrass and clean hatching areas.
You can also take part in your local area, indirectly helping sea turtles around the planet through beach cleanup efforts, campaigning against plastic, educating citizens, speaking out against coastal development and getting involved in the protection of coral reefs.
Because demand feeds supply, avoiding turtle products will take power away from those who steal eggs and needlessly kill turtles. Check that ingredients list in your creams and soaps, where turtle oil may be used. Avoid the urge to try turtle soup or eggs (a specialty in some countries), and boycott any products made from turtle leather.
Even at home you can make a difference. Look for ways to shop waste-free and reduce your use of plastic. Also, when shopping for gifts, look for options sold by nonprofits that support the protection of sea turtle populations.