The temperature was 36 degrees, and we found ourselves attempting a walk of several miles in the afternoon sun. We were hot, we were sweaty and were only a third of the way through our walk. The Cypriot sun was unforgiving, yet, for some bizarre reason, we thought this walk a good idea. All consumed by our hot and bothered misery, nothing could distract us. Or so we thought. Suddenly, something on the beach front caught our attention, a large form lying by the waters edge. A passing french couple saw it just as we did, and though we were slightly lost in translation (they were better at English than we were French) the four of us stood, debating what was going on. So what was this mysterious form that had us so captivated? A green sea turtle.
After much debate, and to our heartbreak, we realised that our sea turtle was, in fact, dead. Even dead, it is the closest I have ever come to seeing a wild sea turtle. Our specimen was rather large and after clambering across the rocks to perform a brief inspection, our french friend concluded there was no ‘obvious’ reason for his demise. It was devastating, especially when we were looking at such an endangered species.
Sea turtles have roamed our oceans for over 100 million years, but in this day and age, they find themselves fighting for their very survival. In our oceans, we have seven species of sea turtle: leatherback; green; loggerhead; Kemp’s ridley; hawksbill; flatback and olive ridley. All of which, are either endangered or critically endangered species. What’s the problem then? Why do we find all of our sea turtle species teetering precariously in such a perilous situation? Well, sea turtles are extremely sensitive and are immensely vulnerable to anthropogenic impacts, throughout all stages of their life-cycle. The most problematic and detrimental? The ‘harvesting’ of eggs, adults and juveniles from beaches and foraging grounds. Harvesting is predominantly for meat for human consumption, but trade of turtle body parts is also big business in many countries. Surely this sounds illegal? Unfortunately, not in all countries. According to research by Blue Ventures Conservation in 2014, 42,000 sea turtles are harvested annually in 42 countries and this is despite increased protection for these species. Although this number is thought to have reduced by 60% since the 1980s, it is still worryingly high.
Another problem is very common among many of our marine animals; entanglement in fishing nets. Drift netting, shrimp trawling, long-lining and dynamite fishing all pose a significant threat to sea turtles and this is likely to become more prevalent as the fishing industry continues to grow. But it doesn’t end there. Degradation of nesting and marine habitats is also a significant threat. Beach development activities, such as beach armouring, nourishment and sand extraction, all threaten turtle nesting beaches. Such activities can be a direct threat through building construction but also indirectly, through changes in beach thermal profiles and erosion levels. This impacts not only the availability of nesting beaches, but also their quality.
Threats to the marine environment come in the form of increased sedimentation and pollution levels, increased boat traffic and harvesting of algae. All of this contributes to the level of degradation that our marine environments experience and this can have a knock on affect on turtle health. Some research has linked such poor conditions within the marine environment with increases in the cases of Fibropapilloma disease. This is a disease amongst turtles that causes the growth of benign tumours. Though not fatal in itself, complications can arise when tumours grow in areas that affect swimming, breathing and swallowing.
So, problems identified. But putting aside our responsibility to protect our species, why does it matter? Would our ecosystems really miss sea turtles if they were to disappear? The short answer? Yes. Sea turtles are important because they are a vital ingredient to two of Earth’s ecosystems. The marine ecosystem and the beach/dune system. In the marine world, sea turtles are one of few who like to chomp on seagrass. Like all grass in the world, seagrass needs to be kept short in order for it to be healthy and induce growth. Along with the manatee, sea turtles graze this marine ‘lawn’ and maintain healthy beds of seagrass. Ok, so why is sea grass important? They provide breeding and nursey grounds for numerous fish, shellfish and crustacean species (think of Finding Nemo). Without these beds, we would see a decline in many species, impacting the wider marine food chain and leading to the possible loss of some species. Indeed, recent declines in the health and number of seagrass beds, could easily be linked to a reduction in sea turtle numbers.
So, what of the beach dune? Well, as you may know, dune systems are very lacking in nutrients, and only the toughest and hardiest plant species can grow here. As we also know, sea turtles lay their eggs in nests on beaches. A sea turtle will lay approximately 100 eggs in a nest and she can lay up to 7 nests in one season! But not every one of these nests will be successful, with many not hatching. These unhatched nests provide vital sources of nutrients for the beach/dune vegetation system and even empty eggshells can provide nutrients. Consequently, this has a positive impact on dune vegetation, making it healthier and stronger. This impacts upon the entire beach/dune ecosystem, improving its condition and making stronger root systems that hold sand together and protect against beach erosion. As turtles decline, egg numbers decline, impacting nutrient levels on beaches and increasing the threat from accelerated erosion.
Lose one part of an ecosystem and we will likely lose another and then another, until the ecosystem declines so greatly in health, that we lose entire species. We have seen it before. Ecosystem damage across our globe is already prevalent and in many cases, irreversible. If we lose our sea turtles, our marine ecosystems will find themselves in a perilous situation. Save the sea turtle, save the oceans.
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