A shockingly high percentage of turtles are on the decline. 61 percent of 376 turtle species found in the world are either extinct or threatened. They are being wiped out from the face of our earth at a very fast pace. If you’re wondering why sea turtles? What could be bothering these resilient species that have been on the planet for over 100 million years?
Read on to find out the threats being faced by these creatures.
Threats faced by sea turtles
Image by ‘Umeed Mistry’
I’m sure most of you would have seen the horrific video of a plastic straw being pulled out of a green sea turtle’s nostril. Over 1 million marine animals are killed due to ingestion or getting caught by plastic that has been thrown into the oceans. Thousands of sea turtles accidentally ingest plastic bags and other plastic products for their prey such as jellyfish and small fish. They even get entangles in discarded plastic beer can holders, fishing nets, and other such material which they end up starving or choking to death.
Oil spills and other coastal pollution including harmful chemicals and waste runoff which enters the oceans also poisons the food resources of the turtles and disrupts the entire marine ecosystem.
Overexploitation for Meat and Body parts
Turtles are used for both meat and medicinal properties. In China, both small and large species of turtles are hunted for food and to be used for traditional Chinese medicines. Their hunting for meat in not only restricted to china but to all other parts of the world. Turtles are illegally hunted and transported to be used to food and medicine. Some species like the box turtle and golden coin turtle although hardly 8 inches long are sold for tens of thousands of US dollars in the illegal wildlife trade. Turtles such as the hawksbill turtle is also hunted for its shell which was earlier used in eyeglass frames, for making jewellery and other decorative items.
Turtles depend on both land and the sea for their survival. Climate change is having a major impact on the natural habitat all over the world. With the increase in temperatures which is resulting in polar ice caps melting and sea levels rising, the beaches which turtles depend on for nesting are disappearing. With no beach to come ashore to lay their eggs, future generations of turtles are in major trouble. Since the gender of the turtles also depend on the temperature, increase in temperatures also causes a skewed gender ratio with more female sea turtles being born. This drastically reduces reproductive opportunities as well as decreases genetic diversity in the sea turtle populations.
Image by ‘Umeed Mistry’
With increasing coastal development, quiet undisturbed beaches are disappearing. Beaches are flooded with buildings, homes, and man-made structures. Female turtles due to this disturbance end up choosing lesser optimal beach sites which result in lesser chances of nest survival. The artificial lighting on beaches also disorients the newly hatched turtle hatchlings. Instead of directly heading to sea they get confused and lost and end up dying due to starvation and increased predations as they end up spending more time on land after hatching, endangering the future populations of these endangered species.
Why are turtles important?
Along with just simply the intrinsic value of the species, turtles play a major role in the proper functioning of the ecosystem.
Maintaining a healthy ecosystem
They help in maintaining the balance of the ocean ecosystem by being an integral part of the food web. For example, green sea turtles’ main food source is seagrass. By feeding on this plant, they act like an ‘ocean gardener’ and maintain the growth of this seagrass. By doing so they prevent the grass from taking over the ocean floor which can prove to be a nuisance by leaving no space for other sea organisms to grow and feed on. Healthy sea beds with nicely trimmed grass prove to be an important platform for various organisms as nurseries and are an important carbon sink and oxygen provider in the ocean.
Not only are sea turtles an important food source for various animals like sharks, whales, sea birds and other fish but also when on land juvenile sea turtles are preyed on by foxes, racoons, ants, crabs. But want to hear something exciting? This is not the only way sea turtles provide food for other organisms. Various forms of barnacles, algae and small organisms called ‘epibionts’ attach themselves on the shells of sea turtles. So the sea turtles carry them around on their back from one part of the sea to another. Many fish and shrimp species rely on this food source for their survival. You can almost think of it like a moving ‘buffet system’!
Left over sea turtle eggs are a good source of nutrients that help in increasing the fertility of the sand and help in better coastal vegetation. Better coastal vegetation in turn helps prevent soil erosion and in turn helping the overall ecosystem to function better.
Even though there is a lot of factors working against sea turtles globally, there are many organisations that are working hard in spreading awareness about the plight of turtles and working towards ensuring the survival of these fascinating sea creatures.
Image by ‘Umeed Mistry’