Seven species of sea turtles swim the seven seas… from the tropical marine waters and colorful reefs of the Coral Triangle in southeast Asia, to the shallow seagrass beds of the Indian Ocean, to the sandy beaches of the Pacific along the Americas.
A strong and resilient creature, the sea turtle will swim thousands of miles during its lifetime and after decades, return to the same beach where they were born to lay their eggs. And yet their populations are declining at a dangerously rapid pace all of our efforts seems unable to stop.
Why are sea turtles endangered?
Is it due to predators?
Sea turtles have their fair share of predators from birth. Crabs, raccoons and birds attack the eggs and hatchlings. Yet each year thousands of hatchling turtles emerge from their nests along the U.S. coastline. Of those, only ten percent will survive to adulthood. The odds are stacked against them not by predators, but by the actions of humans.
The survival situation is no better in other coastal communities across the world and is probably in fact, far worse. A growing awareness in the United States of their situation as an endangered species as well as strict trade laws, have worked to make the consumption of turtles and use of their byproducts less attractive.
In Central America and Asia however, sea turtles are still hunted as food for their meat and their eggs. The meat is sold as a delicacy in some places and their eggs are found in local markets.
Apart from simply a food source, turtle eggs are considered as an aphrodisiac in some countries and sold on the black market . Oil is still extracted from the eggs and marketed for use in skin creams. Turtle oil cream was used in cosmetics all through the 1900s in the United States and marketed as a high-end product by respected companies like Estee Lauder and Faberge .
Although the seriously declining population is recognized internationally and most countries have trade restrictions in place, as well as laws against poaching, turtle shells are also sold on the black market.
They are prized for their color and patterns, and made into beautiful bracelets, hair combs and fans. Depending on the species, sea turtles range can be from olive-green, yellow, greenish-brown, reddish-brown, or black in color. And their oily skin is a natural insulator from water and is prized for its resilience and beauty in footwear .
Pushed to the edge by the modern development
Sea turtle habitat loss on beaches is contributing to their decline as well. Many sea turtles return to their birthplace, only to find it developed or destroyed by clearing or agriculture run-off. Populated beaches, vehicle traffic and lights from seaside condominiums, bars and hotels also make the beach unsuitable for nesting. The increasingly severe storms and recent sea level rise have also destroyed critical nesting beaches.
The lights are not only a disturbance to the mother, but scientists believe that hatchlings are innately drawn to the brightest light, which once was the moonlight on the water to find their way to the ocean. Now they can become disoriented, heading toward human civilization where their chances of survival are slim.
Beach armoring, when homeowners build vertical seawalls to protect their homes from high water and erosion caused by rising sea levels and the increase in storms has also eliminated nesting areas in recent years.
Deadly traps right at their footstep
Another large problem is the fishing industry inadvertently catching sea turtles on hooks or in its nets. Each year, more than 250,000 sea turtles are accidentally captured, injured or killed by U.S. fishermen. Many of these injuries and deaths take place while turtles are migrating through fishing areas. The turtles, attracted to the bait, get caught on the hooks used to catch fish .
Other meaningless deaths result from ghost-fishing, when they are caught up in abandoned fishing gear in the ocean.
Plastic debris in the ocean kills over 100 million marine animals each year. It is estimated that there are 100 million tons of plastic in oceans around the world. In some areas, the buildup of plastics is estimated to span 5 million square miles, the equivalent of the area of area the U.S. plus India .
Most plastic does not biodegrade. It simply breaks into smaller pieces. Perhaps you have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Western Garbage Patch. These are patches of tiny plastic the wind and waves have brought together. Sometimes, due to the currents, these patches are not even visible and at other times, very much so. The ubiquitous plastic bags we use that fly from the beach towel, the garbage truck, into the storm drains strangle turtles and the colorful plastic they ingest can kill them.
All sea turtles in U.S. waters are federally listed as endangered, except for the loggerhead which is listed as threatened. Although many organizations are making efforts to reduce these threats, as this is being written, sea turtles are headed toward extinction.