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November 12, 2013

Saving the World's Sea Turtles

Baby-sea-turtlePhoto by Elisabeth Keating

By Elisabeth Keating, Washington State Chapter communications chair

After I witnessed a Galapagos green turtle hatchling finding the ocean (see Sharing "Hatch Day" with a Galapagos Sea Turtle), I set out to learn everything I could about the dangers that my turtle will face throughout his 60-year lifespan. I turned to sea turtle expert Dr. Bryan Wallace, chief scientist at the Oceanic Society, for some answers. That's Wallace, below, with a green sea turtle.

Bryan-Wallace-&-sea-turtlePhoto courtesy of Bryan Wallace

What did I learn? Sea turtles face many threats from global warming. Ocean acidification could harm their shells and deplete their sea grass diet, their nesting beaches may become swamped, and as beach temperatures rise, it could skew the gender of hatchlings.

"The sex of hatchlings is determined by nest temperature," Dr. Wallace told me. "So as the planet warms, the sex ratio of sea turtles could be skewed. We could have higher numbers of females."

Bryan-Wallace-&-sea-turtlePhoto courtesy of Bryan Wallace

Beachfront overdevelopment can cause turtle hatchlings to become disoriented by bright lights or impeded by buildings from finding the ocean. And in places like the Galapagos, boat strikes are becoming more of a problem as tourism increases. Overfishing also harms turtles, which can get tangled in nets and fishing gear.

Despite all these threats, Dr. Wallace remains positive. "I think we're underestimating how flexible turtles can be. They've adapted before to climate change. The big question is, how fast can they adapt?"

Bryan-Wallace-&-sea-turtlePhoto courtesy of Bryan Wallace

Some environmentalists have taken heroic steps to save sea turtle habitat. But as Dr. Wallace told me, "There are lots of things you can do to help the world's sea turtles, even if you don't live near the ocean. Everyday decisions by individual people really add up. If a significant number of people took responsibility for what they do, it could make a big difference. "

Eat sustainable seafood. "By following the guidelines of Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute, you can be sure you're making smart seafood decisions that help protect turtles and marine ecosystems.

Shrimp fishing can be especially harmful to sea turtles and other marine species that get caught in shrimping nets. (Species who are not the intended prey are known as "bycatch.") Making smarter shrimp choices that reduce bycatch could save thousands of turtles."

Avoid plastic bags. "Bring a reusable bag to do your shopping. Even if you live in a landlocked city, your bags end up in the ocean eventually. Plastic doesn't biodegrade very quickly, and it's a big deal for turtles. My colleagues and I are seeing more and more plastic in sea turtles' guts when we do necropsies to determine the cause of death. A recent study showed that 40 percent of leatherbacks had some level of plastic in them, and that the rate of plastics showing up in turtles' guts is increasing. "

Make sea turtle-friendly travel decisions. "Beachfront development can be very harmful to sea turtles. It's unusual to see a hatchling in the daytime. They usually travel at night to avoid predators. Once ready to leave the nest, they first orient themselves to visual cues. They look for the brightest point on the horizon -- almost always the ocean. So artificial light really screws with their ability to find the ocean. They also use secondary cues like hearing the ocean, the smell of the ocean, and a sense of going downhill to find their way.

If you're taking a beach vacation, do your research and stay at turtle-friendly places. Ask them lots of questions before you book: Are sea turtles nesting at your property? Do you have turtle tours? Are your lights turtle-friendly? Reward seafront resorts that help turtles by spending your money there. "

Learn about sea turtles and where they live. "I work with an organization called The State of the World's Sea Turtles, or SWOT. Our goal is to measure the health of sea turtle populations around the world. We're creating a global network of people working to accelerate the conservation of sea turtles and their habitats, pooling and synthesizing data, and regularly sharing information. As part of this effort we author an annual report called The State of the World's Sea Turtles."

Support SWOT's work by volunteering or making a donation. "The SWOT research team isn't just made up of scientists. We rely upon help from concerned citizens to help us create a global database of sea turtles around the world. If you live near sea turtles and would like to join the SWOT team, we'd love to have you! Visit this page to sign up. Or you can donate to our research efforts and support sea turtle conservation around the world."

Elisabeth Keating is a Seattle-based writer and environmental activist.

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