Dear EarthTalk: What is the status of sea turtle protection efforts? Don’t many of them die in fishnets and, as a result, are threatened with extinction?
—Matthew Larrabee, Woburn, MA
Given their tenuous existence, sea turtles are considered by many environmentalists as ambassadors for the world’s troubled oceans. They have graced the seas for more than 200 million years and survived whatever catastrophe befell the dinosaurs. But they are now facing a sharp decline in numbers around the world due mainly to human threats such as the alteration of beach nesting habitat, the harvesting of eggs for food, entanglement in fishing nets and pollution of ocean waters.
Found in all the warm ocean waters of the Earth, sea turtles generally remain at sea, returning to the surface for air and only coming ashore to lay eggs and nest. The five species of sea turtles found in and around North America are the leatherback, green turtle, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley and loggerhead.
Sea turtles are protected in and around U.S. waters under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which lists the hawksbill, leatherback, Kemp’s ridley and green turtle as “endangered,” while the loggerhead is listed as “threatened.” (A species is considered endangered when it is on the brink of extinction; if it is experiencing serious threats that may eventually lead to its extinction, but the situation is not yet critical, it is classified as threatened.) Harming, harassing, killing, importing, selling or transporting any sea turtle, hatchling or eggs is considered a violation of federal law punishable by a stiff fine and jail time.
Outside the U.S., many other countries have similar laws designed to protect the world’s remaining and beloved sea turtles. And the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement signed by 169 countries and designed to prevent the trade in endangered wild animals and their parts, also protects sea turtles. But such measures often look much better on paper; enforcement efforts are often inadequate and as a result sea turtle populations continue to plummet.
According to the Florida-based Caribbean Conservation Corporation (also known as the Sea Turtle Survival League), present goals for protecting sea turtles include: cracking down on the illegal international trade in turtles and turtle products; forcing fishing boats to use “turtle excluder devices” in their nets to decrease turtle deaths; establishing more coastal refuges to keep development from encroaching on turtle nesting beaches; decreasing artificial light near nesting beaches (light scares turtles away); enforcing laws to minimize the dumping of pollutants and solid waste into the ocean and near-shore waters; and stepping up turtle monitoring activities so conservation efforts can stay focused where they are most needed.
Individuals can do their part by steering clear of sea turtles when they are laying eggs on beaches, making sure to never remove or handle a turtle egg in any way, and keeping house lights (and even flashlights and camera flashes) off at night on or near nesting beaches. Concerned persons can also help by joining and supporting organizations working to protect sea turtles, such as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation.