Sea turtles, Human impact, Climate change, Eco-warriors, Pollution, Conservation, The Turtle Walkers
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” – William Shakespeare
Just like you, today’s subject is also a fun-loving beach bum. However, while your ancestors appeared on earth just a million years ago, these gentle beings have wandered its oceans and beaches for over 250 million years. Sea turtles range in size from about two to six feet long, weigh between 100 and 2,000 pounds and have an average lifespan of 70 to 80 years. Unlike their freshwater relatives, the head and limbs of sea turtles are fixed outside the shell and do not retract. There are seven species, four of which are endangered, and three critically endangered.
Sea turtles play an important role in two ecosystems, land and marine; by keeping aquatic life balanced and providing clean water and oxygen to the atmosphere. These ancient mariners migrate long distances, often across continents, between feeding and nesting grounds and stay in warmer waters when the seasons change. Amazingly, females return to the same beach where they were born to lay their eggs, even though it maybe 30 years later, and the appearance of the beach may have greatly changed.
Hawksbill, green, flatback, loggerhead, kemp’s ridley and olive ridley turtles have shells made up of hard scutes, while the aptly-named leatherback turtles have a leathery carapace made up of connective tissue. The kemp’s ridley turtles are the smallest, and the leatherback, the largest. Sea turtles are truly magnificent, catching the imagination of toddlers and scientists alike.
Despite the inexplicable bond we share with these prehistoric creatures, we seem to be losing them fairly quickly to our modern day lifestyle and fast-paced needs. Little do we know that its disappearance can cause irreparable damage to our blue planet. The current climate emergency leaves us no time to remain unaware of our ‘impact’. If we take responsibility for our consumption patterns in spite of system induced limitations, we can hopefully leave behind a thriving world for our future generations.
While every ecological problem we face today is inter-linked, what can be done by an individual to make a difference? Each of our contributions is a step taken towards preserving the ecosystem as a whole. Sea turtles are a flagship species; to save them means protecting their entire habitat and all the other species that depend on it, including us humans. Here are 9 ideas that can help you save sea turtles and our blue planet.
1. Reduce your crude oil requirements – Crude oil, dug out from deep ocean beds is one of the most commonly traded commodities in the human world. We explore it to provide fuel for our daily commutes, offshore travels and international trade. All plastic and most chemicals also use crude oil as the base raw material. If someone entered our home and started breaking things, we would immediately strike into self defense mode. Unfortunately these little sentient beings have no voice or tendency to fight. Sea turtles die both from internal and external injuries from contact with explored oil and chemical dispersants. Their food and habitat are also continually being wiped out by huge machines and their waste. Food, water and air for humans also get compromised in the bargain. While some say that the governments should solve this problem by making oil exploration ‘safer’, oil spills are an inevitable part of drilling.
The final solution points back at our obsessive need for fuel, plastic and other such toxic chemicals that use crude oil as the raw material. Now would be the right time to hop on to that bicycle to get to work, and to understand how our requirements cause the digging deep down there.
2. Make every tree count – 15.3 billion trees are chopped down every year. Deforestation is the perfect example of how destructive activities on land causes disruption in the marine ecosystem. Highways, agricultural expansion, cattle breeding, timber extraction, mining, industries, dam construction and infrastructure development all call for shaving forests. We’re losing 18.7 million acres of forests annually, equivalent to 27 football fields every minute . Fewer trees cause global warming, which in turn causes the ice caps to melt and eventually lead to sea levels rising. This is the number one threat to the future of these gentle beings. With rising sea levels and unpredictable weather fluctuations, the marine habitat finds it impossible to keep its balance. Sea turtles, for example, are known to travel thousands of kilometers to feed in warm waters when seasons change. Temperature also determines the gender of the hatchling. Reduce your energy requirements; don’t use air-conditioning when cool natural air is available so you don’t contribute to greenhouse gas emissions caused by huge electric plants.
Revive your love for simple mud paths so we don’t demand a faster highway to the mountains. Reach out to help support forest conservation organisations and groups that protect sea life in your country.
3. Rethink ‘Plastic’ – Most people know that plastic is hazardous and non eco-friendly but they don’t know where exactly it comes from and where it eventually goes. Ironically, every piece of plastic ever used by us, still exists somewhere. Plastics are non biodegradable, deformed molecules of crude oil, created by the combination of immense heat force and chemicals. There is no part of the ocean that is not affected by the 335 million metric tons of plastic produced every year on Earth. Sea turtles can’t tell the difference between a plastic bag and a jellyfish, one of their favorite foods. As a result they end up eating plastic bags, which injure or kill them. Over 50% of sea turtles found dead have ingested some form of marine litter. In Florida, 104 pieces of plastic were found inside a 3 week old baby turtle. Worse, plastic does not decompose, it just breaks down to smaller pieces which are ingested by not just their food sources but ours too.
One of the simplest means of protecting sea turtles and the world in general is to never litter and cut out plastic from our life. For example, practically all human food is transported and packed in plastic. Switching to home cooked and locally grown food is necessary so we don’t contribute to this great blunder. In fact, every time we purchase something, it is likely that plastic was used for its packing. To be a true eco warrior today, a deeper thought is needed before we purchase anything. Choose reusable materials like cloth bags and glass jars. Eat local. Support restaurants that provide compostable take out containers. Let the consumerist life transform into a conscientious life, so that future generations may still see hatchlings crawling on soft sands.
4. Industrial waste – Henry Ford invented the first industry in 1908 which revolutionized the production of automotive. As a result, Ford sold millions of cars and became a world-famous business leader. He is credited with “Fordism”: mass production of inexpensive goods. In about 100 years, we now live in a completely industrial world that produces pollutants which are extremely harmful to people and the environment. Industrial facilities dispose of waste leachate into rivers, which flow into the oceans. This liquid is often an incredible amalgamation of hazardous, indestructible chemicals and heavy metals.
Sea turtles locate prey thanks to their acute sense of smell. It is also believed to contribute to how female sea turtles find their way back to their birthplace to nest across thousands of kilometers. What would happen to the species who depend on smell underwater to reach across an ocean? If that’s not enough food for thought, imagine what the industrial leachate running in the veins of its marine food sources may taste like and do to them.
The amount of industrial leachate that has been let out into the oceans in the past century is so much that no human can endeavour to put a number on it. This probably explains partly why amphibious creatures like sea turtles that could stand the test of time, about 250 million years, are failing to survive in what we humans call the ‘industrial revolution’, of a mere 100 years.
The solution is not as hard as you might think. Imagine how our families lived before the industrial revolution. Even while most of us secretly aspire for the new iphone, let’s remember what’s more important. Simple living and high thinking. Buy less, so that your industrial waste is less.
5. Eat natural plant based foods – Industrial food involves any food that is acquired or created for human consumption using large scale or high technology practices. Most of these techniques were created to increase production yields so everyone can be sold all types of food everywhere, at all times, for lower prices. Beef production in the Amazon rainforest is one example of how our food system has caused climate change. Cattle ranching occupies an estimated 80 percent of the deforested land area of this rainforest. Worse, genetically modified crops grown to supply the cattle and humans alike, consume vast quantities of fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides, much of which wash into streams and rivers, and then downstream to the sea. High levels of pesticide use lead to the creation of oceanic “Dead Zones.” Eutrophication – a process whereby an environment becomes enriched with nutrients – occurs when excess nutrients enter a stream, river or ocean, encouraging algae growth on the surface of the water. As the algae spreads, it forms large algal blooms on the water’s surface. Unfortunately, these blooms typically absorb nearly all of the dissolved oxygen content in the water, rendering that environment incapable of supporting its other forms of plant and animal life. Algal blooms can also be hazardous to marine life because of the toxins they produce. If the bloom is made up of an algae species that produces toxins, it is known as a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB), which can cause disease and death to shellfish, sea turtles, marine birds, animals, and fish. HABs can also be extremely dangerous to people if they enter human drinking water supplies.
Remember, kindness over convenience. Compassion over suffering. What you put on your plate matters, both for yourself and the sea turtles. Buy from local farmer’s markets, or grow and harvest your own food. In trying times such as the current pandemic, you will have access to fresh and healthy food.
6. Support only sustainable fishing – When billions of people, specially in non-coastal areas, demand fish on their plate, one can imagine the strain caused on ocean stocks. Fish has been a staple for many coastal communities for thousands of years and yet it never became scarce or toxic. Aggressive modern-day commercial fishing methods such as bottom trawling and the usage of purse seine nets often devastate large areas of a targeted oceanic ecosystem by removing far more fish than was intended. Non-targeted marine animal species such as sharks, small whales, dolphins, and sea turtles, frequently end up entangled in commercial fishing trawlers’ nets as “bycatch” – in spite of the fact that they are not usually the intended catch. Around 40 percent of a typical fishing fleet’s catch is made up of these animals, who often die as a result of the shock and trauma of being pulled out from the ocean. Innovations like the turtle excluder device have come into use by some fishers which have helped reduce the bycatch. Meanwhile, an estimated 80 percent of the oceans’ fish stocks are fully or over-exploited. Many conservation experts believe that our oceans could be empty of fish by the year 2048, but the truly chilling news is that even if they do not become devoid of life by that date, they could end up containing more toxins than fish.
If you are consuming fish, ask where it came from, and how it was caught. This can help you determine if the fish is sustainable. If you don’t live in coastal areas, you could either consume fresh water fish, river fish that are found locally or choose not to eat seafood.
7. Gain awareness of the natural and unnatural threats from poaching – In nature, sea turtles face a host of life and death obstacles to their survival. Predators such as raccoons, crabs and ants raid eggs and hatchlings still in the nest. Once they emerge, hatchlings make bite-sized meals for birds, crabs and a host of predators in the ocean. After reaching adulthood, sea turtles are relatively immune to predation, except for the occasional shark attack. These natural threats, however, are not the reasons for certain sea turtle populations becoming endangered. To understand what really threatens their survival, we must look at the actions of humans. Over the last 200 years, human activities have tipped the scales against the survival of these ancient mariners. Slaughtered for their eggs, meat, skin, and shells, sea turtles suffer from poaching and over-exploitation. Hawksbill sea turtles, recognized for their beautiful gold and brown shells, have been hunted for centuries to create jewelry and other luxury items. As a result, these turtles are now listed as critically endangered. Scientists estimate that hawksbill populations have declined by 90 percent during the past 100 years. In spite of strict laws, the demand for shells continues today on the black market.
To avoid this, don’t leave food on the nesting beaches. This causes the predators more likely to be on the beach and attack the hatchlings. Become aware of the illegal poaching activities and stay away from the products that exploit marine animals. You could stand up for the sea turtles by signing petitions or taking part in conservation activities.
8. Refrain from beach entertainment and development – Sea turtles swim across oceans to find a beach home or nesting site where they can lay their eggs to give way to the next generation. When sea turtles come to shore to lay their eggs they are not only providing a wildlife tourist attraction, but also distributing nutrients into the barren sand. This becomes a vital source of nutrients to the plants that grow on beaches and as a byproduct the beach vegetation stabilizes the sand and reduces erosion. All species of sea turtles are harmed because of human use of nesting beaches. This can result in negative impacts to nesting turtles, incubating egg clutches and hatchlings. The large human presence on the beach and concrete development, both cause disturbance to nesting females. Artificial lights and night-time human activity prevent sea turtles from emerging on the beach or even cause females to stop nesting and return to the ocean. Beach furniture and other recreational equipment (e.g., cabanas, umbrellas, hobie cats, canoes, small boats and beach cycles) reduce nesting success and increase false crawls on nesting beaches. There is also increasing documentation of nesting females becoming entrapped in beach furniture. Beach driving, either at night or during the daytime, can negatively impact sea turtles. Tire ruts left by vehicles can extend the time it takes a hatchling to reach the ocean and increase their chance of being caught by a predator. Driving during the day can cause sand compaction above nests resulting in lower nest success. To protect this prime real estate, many coastal property owners have built coastal armoring structures such as sea walls, rock revetments and sandbags to help save their property from natural erosion. These man-made structures threaten sea turtles nesting habitat by interrupting their natural nesting process, causing reduction of nesting habitats and displacement of turtles to less optimal nesting areas.
Next time we think ‘beach day’, let’s leave it cleaner than when we first arrived there. If you do encounter a sea turtle, remain calm and quiet, do not disturb them. If you frighten a female sea turtle, she may end up trying to escape back into the ocean instead of nesting on the beach. Avoid any sort of beach obstacle course for baby turtles. If you dig a hole in the sand, fill it in before you go home. If you build a sand castle, knock it down before leaving the beach. These innocent species are known to be attracted to light. Sadly, in some cases, they can crawl into the fire. So it’s best to avoid beach fires during hatching season. Lastly, if you see what you think may be turtle tracks on the beach, don’t touch them. Turtle tracks are a great way for researchers to conduct population research, which has become very important since so many species are classified endangered.
9. Mind your boat – As consumers today, we are spoilt for choice. Additionally, we want the best of every commodity right at our doorstep. The global shipping industry uses three million barrels/day of high-sulfur fuel oil that threatens the ocean ecosystems. Besides the toxic waste released into the waters, it is estimated that hundreds of sea turtles are struck by vessels in the United States alone each year. Many of them are killed without being observed. In Florida alone, injuries consistent with vessel strikes are observed in 20 to 30 percent of stranded sea turtles. Collisions may occur anywhere vessels cross paths with marine life. It can be difficult for a vessel operator to spot marine animals because they are not always clearly visible from the surface. And even if the operator sees the animal clearly, there may be no time for either of them to avoid a collision. All species of sea turtles are also vulnerable to vessel strikes as they surface to breathe, bask near the surface, or forage in shallow areas or on prey near the sea surface. Adult sea turtles appear to be at increased risk during breeding and nesting season. According to Thorvalson, in South Carolina boat strikes are the biggest immediate threat to sea turtles.
Again, it seems like the shipping industry is not something an individual can change but if you think about why things are being shipped around the globe so fervently, you may be able to link it to your last purchase from Amazon. Now that we humans are familiar with ‘social distancing’, another way to help would be to practice this in the waters too. Keep at least 50 meters away when you come across any marine species! Be particularly careful not to run aground near the marsh where collision is more likely. Stay in channels and avoid dropping anchors by coral reefs.
A green sea turtle that fractured its skull from the nares (nostrils) to the mandible (upper jaw) due to a boat strike:
In recent decades, great strides have been made in the conservation of sea turtles and their nesting beaches. Laws such as the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, and two sea turtle specific international environmental agreements, have also improved the protection of marine turtle habitats and populations. All seven sea turtle species are listed, but laws alone have not been able to reduce bycatch, poaching, and habitat destruction.
There are numerous efforts being made by individuals and communities to change the trajectory of sea turtles, Raja Ampat being one of the more recent success stories for the marine environment and local community. These waters harbor more types of fish and coral than anywhere else on the planet – 1,720 species fish and 600 hard corals – 75% of the world’s identified coral species. Many communities in Raja Ampat are reclaiming their marine treasures and protecting them. Shawn Heinrichs and John Weller, two critically-acclaimed photographers, filmmakers and marine conservationists are producing the film “Guardians of Raja Ampat” to record these stories and use them to drive even more conservation.
“I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man” – Mahatma Gandhi
Each human has the power to revive planet earth and millions of other species living on it. You too can make your presence count. This transition will reveal a lot about yourself and make you a true ocean warrior during this critical time. Are you ready to be one? We would love to know your thoughts. Feel free to leave them in the comment section below.