Why Are Sea Turtles Endangered?

Description of the plight of the Sea Turtle and it's recovery attempts.

To anyone who has ever seen a sea turtle, you already understand the impressive beauty and stature surrounding this gigantic species. Sea turtles have been in the midst of danger for some time, and unfortunately many have been lost due to our lack of action. There are many wonderfully hidden secrets surrounding the inner workings of these majestic creatures, their migration ability and their evolved adaption just to name a couple. Death is part of the natural world, although when humans heavily contribute to the demise of the species it is time to ensure their survival by making changes.

There are seven types of sea turtles in the world, and unfortunately six of these are on the redlist as either threatened or endangered. Some of the sea turtle species many people are familiar with, like the Loggerhead Turtle, Green Turtle, and the Leatherback Turtle. Sea turtles can weigh up to 300 lbs and are a migratory species.

There are many types of issues that place the sea turtles in danger. Nesting has become a primary concern. During the breeding season the female can nest more than once, and when this lumbering beast comes ashore it places itself in a very vulnerable position. Settlement and recreational development have encroached on nesting areas which can force a female to use a less suitable nesting area or to abort her eggs altogether. Artificial lighting like neon signs and street lights disturb turtles and confuse them. It is believed that turtles navigate between the beach and the ocean using reflected light, and man made lights may distort their vision.

On land they do not possess much grace, and with myopic vision they are at a great disadvantage. This of course offers poachers the opportunity to harm the turtle and steal their eggs. Turtle eggs are a delicacy in many areas, and the turtle's "calipee" is removed for turtle soup. Calipee is cartilage which is literally cut out of the live turtle from among the bones of the bottom shell. Unfortunately for the turtle this means a painful death, as the helpless animal is left struggling on the beach. Other parts of the turtle are sometimes removed like the shell, although it is much too difficult to poach the entire 300 lb. animal. What a waste! There are laws in place to prevent transport of illegal animal parts, except it is virtually impossible to tell the difference between legal calipee and contraband.

Sea turtles are unintentionally caught and drowned by shrimping vessels that use trawl nets. Unfortunately for the tangled turtles, the nets are not hauled in fast enough to save them. We have begun using turtle excluder devices (TED'S) which allow the trapped turtles to escape the net. There is heavy debate happening regarding these devices, as some believe that their shrimp catch is diminished as a result of their use. Gill nets and dredging for oil and gas are also responsible for destroying habitat and injuring sea turtles.

On more of an illness issue, Fibropapilloma Tumors have become a recognizable problem. These are lobe shaped tumors that grow on all soft portions of the turtle's body. Their size can increase to that of a cauliflower causing the turtle serious hardship and death. If death is not caused by size and number of tumors, it is brought on by starvation when tumors grow over the eyes, blinding them. So far the cause of these tumors is not known, and research is being done to find the root of the problem. Hopefully the origin of the tumors can be found as it was once thought to be a Green Turtle disease, and is now affecting other species.

Methods have been researched and implemented to help protect the species, and guaranteed contact time during nesting and hatching is used to effectively tag them. Unfortunately tags attached to shells during mating season ended up being useless as the mating ritual between male and female turtles is exceptionally violent. Hopefully in the future using tags on these creatures will provide information on their migration, their lifestyle, and insights to their survival.

Sea turtle conservation began in the 1970's and the 1980's. According to the 1997 Oceans and Coastal Resources Congressional Research Report, "before current sea turtle conservation efforts, at least 11,000 sea turtles (and probably several times this estimate, according to the National Academy of Sciences) died each year from shrimp trawling in U.S. waters". So far our studies have not been conclusive in proving how a sea turtle migrates 1400 miles away from feeding grounds to known breeding grounds. Recovery of the sea turtle should be considered an international problem as the turtles cross country boundaries and some of them have been known to migrate across a quarter of the world. Unfortunately eliminating turtle trade completely causes serious hardship to some cultures. The Japanese support some of their economy with turtle shell products, German soup makers depend on calipee for turtle soup and in Nicaragua turtle hunting is a way to make a living.

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