Sea turtles have been swimming the oceans for over 100 million years, surviving the extinction of the dinosaurs and thriving until modern times. But today, human activities have driven all seven remaining species of sea turtles into endangered status. These charismatic reptiles now face a range of threats from modern fishing practices to plastic pollution to beachfront development. If we want future generations to be able to see sea turtles in the wild, we need to understand what endangers them and take action to help protect them.
Commercial Fishing Operations Are a Leading Threat to Sea Turtles
Modern industrial fishing operations are one of the biggest dangers facing sea turtles worldwide. Turtles that spend their lives navigating the open ocean are frequently caught up as bycatch in active fisheries. Gillnets, trawls, longlines, and other fishing gear entangle and drown thousands of sea turtles each year.
In addition to direct mortality from entanglement and drowning, fishing also destroys important turtle habitats like coral reefs and seagrass meadows. Trawling physically tears up the seafloor, while practices like cyanide and dynamite fishing kill corals outright. These vital habitats provide food and shelter for sea turtles of all life stages. When they are damaged, turtles lose access to the resources they need to survive.
Fishing also alters marine food webs in ways that can negatively impact turtles. Depletion of fish stocks through overfishing removes important prey species for sea turtles. Without adequate food, turtles starve and population levels decline. All seven sea turtle species are affected by the threat from commercial fisheries operating in their waters.
Hunting Sea Turtles and Eggs for Food and Products Drives Declines
In many countries, sea turtles and their eggs are hunted and harvested for human consumption. Turtle meat, eggs, oil, skin, and shells are all used and traded. Some cultures consider turtle eggs or meat a delicacy. This direct take removes adult turtles and juveniles from the population, hampering reproduction and reducing overall numbers.
Sea turtle shells and skin are made into jewelry, leather, and other decorative items sold to tourists around the world. The trade in stuffed turtles and tortoiseshell also fuels demand. Although international trade in sea turtle products is illegal under CITES, black markets still exist, incentivizing hunting pressures.
In areas where people rely on turtles for subsistence, sustainable harvest levels that allow the population to replenish itself are possible. But in many places, take levels are unsustainable, leading to severe declines.
Coastal Development Destroys Nesting Beaches and Marine Habitat
As human populations grow, coastal areas are increasingly developed for homes, hotels, and industry. This development destroys and degrades sensitive sea turtle nesting beach habitat. Lights, noise, barriers to the beach, vehicular traffic, and human presence on nesting beaches all negatively impact turtles coming ashore to lay eggs.
Development that alters beaches and nearshore waters also damages marine habitats used by sea turtles. Dredging harbors and channels destroys seagrass beds. Increased boat traffic and underwater noise disrupt turtle behavior and degrade habitat. Shoreline armoring with seawalls and jetties prevents natural beach replenishment.
Sea turtles have precise habitat requirements, honed over millions of years of evolution. When we alter coastal areas with development, turtles lose nesting and feeding sites that are critical to their life cycles.
Climate Change Threatens Nesting Sites and Alters Prey Distribution
A warming climate introduces new threats to imperiled sea turtle populations. Rising seas may inundate low-lying nesting beaches, shrinking available nesting habitat. More intense storms and altered weather patterns can wash away entire nests or prevent female turtles from accessing beaches. Hotter sand temperatures may skew hatchling sex ratios.
Changes in ocean temperature and currents shift the distributions of jellyfish, seagrasses, and other turtle prey. As their food resources move or decline, turtles have to travel farther to find adequate nutrition. This increased energy expenditure may impact health and reproduction.
If rapid climate change outpaces sea turtles' ability to adapt, the already endangered reptiles may face mounting challenges from this existential threat. Greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change ultimately need to be curbed to create a more stable environment for sea turtles.
Plastic Pollution and Toxic Chemicals Degrade Marine Environments
Plastic pollution has become ubiquitous in the world's oceans. Sea turtles ingest or become entangled in marine debris, which can block their digestive tracts, damage their organs, or cause drowning. Turtles mistake plastic bags and balloons for their jellyfish prey, consuming harmful trash that can lead to starvation.
Toxins like fertilizer runoff, oil spills, pesticides, and industrial chemicals also enter the ocean from land-based activities. These contaminants bioaccumulate up the food chain, eventually reaching high levels in long-lived sea turtles. Negative health impacts can result, including organ damage, endocrine disruption, and reproductive impairment.
Pollution in marine environments degrades essential turtle habitat like seagrass meadows and coral reefs. Contaminants reduce the ability of these habitats to support diverse food webs with ample prey for sea turtles. Cleaning up pollution is key to maintaining healthy oceans that can sustain sea turtle populations.
Tourism Development Can Harm Nesting Turtles Through Disruption
In areas where sea turtle nesting occurs, tourism often flourishes as people flock to beaches. Nesting turtles depend on dark, quiet beaches to successfully reproduce. But hotels, restaurants, and residential buildings bring lights, noise, and human activity to coastal areas.
Nesting females startled by beachgoers may abort nesting attempts. Hatchlings confused by artificial lights may crawl inland instead of out to sea. Loud music, bonfires, and crowds on the beach all deter turtles from landing. Beach furniture and equipment can obstruct access to nesting sites.
While tourism provides needed income, it must be balanced with maintaining the pristine beach habitat turtles rely on. Light pollution laws, seasonal beach closures, and public education can allow both tourism and turtles to thrive along coastlines.
How You Can Help Protect Sea Turtles
Although sea turtles face substantial threats from human activities, there are many ways concerned citizens can help protect these iconic reptiles. Every individual can make a positive difference for sea turtle conservation through their actions.
Reduce plastic waste: Cut down on single-use plastics, and participate in beach and community cleanup efforts to prevent marine pollution. Bring reusable bags when shopping, and recycle properly to keep plastics out of the ocean.
Choose sustainable seafood: Support responsible fisheries and avoid seafood caught via harmful methods like longlines or driftnets which frequently entangle turtles. Eat low on the food chain by choosing fish like anchovies over large predators.
Turn out beachfront lights: If you live along the coast, keep beach-facing lights low, shielded, and turned off during nesting season. Draw curtains after dark. Follow local lighting ordinances and encourage others to do the same.
Leave no trace when beachgoing: Take all your trash with you when you leave the beach. Fill in any holes dug in the sand, take down beach gear, and leave natural vegetation in place for nesting habitat.
Volunteer for conservation: Join local organizations involved in sea turtle monitoring, advocacy, education, habitat protection, and population enhancement. Both your time and financial support help fund conservation.
Support ecotourism: When vacationing in turtle nesting destinations, choose tour operators committed to sustainable practices that minimize disturbance to wildlife. Avoid riding or disturbing nesting turtles.
The choices we make each day determine the fate of sea turtles. Being mindful of reducing threats allows these ancient mariners to persist into the future. With public awareness and engagement, we can maintain healthy oceans that sustain both marine life and human communities. Our children deserve to share the planet with wild, free-swimming sea turtles.