Certainly turtles have their fair share of natural predators when they are young. Even before they hatch, turtle eggs are at risk of being raided by raccoons, crabs, and ants. Once they hatch, juvenile turtles make a mad dash for the water, trying to avoid crabs, birds, and other predators. Adult predators are relatively safe from natural predators except for a rare shark attack.
What threatens marine turtles more than anything is man. Human activity, by far, is what has caused the populations of all sea turtle species to decline and what continues to threaten them today. Specific threats can vary by species, but at a high level, the dangers include fishing activity (especially trawling and nets), poaching, coastal development, pollution, and climate change.
6 of the 7 sea turtle species are listed as endangered. The 7th is listed as threatened.
Loggerhead turtles are listed as threatened, but they are likely to become endangered turtles in the future. That's because, despite conservation efforts, threats continue to keep the population at risk. The greatest threat to loggerheads is the loss of nesting habitats due to coastal development. Other dangers include human disturbances such as coastal lights that disorient hatchlings and fishing practices.
Green sea turtles are classified as endangered, and the population in the Mediterranean is listed as critically endangered. While fishing and destruction of their nesting grounds are part of the problem, green sea turtles are also at risk due to boat propeller accidents and poaching. Green turtles are killed for their meat and eggs.
Leatherback turtles are also endangered. Their number appears to be holding or even increasing in the Atlantic, but in the Pacific, the population is declining at a high rate. Fishing and coastal development are threats, but intense egg collection is also one reason they have disappeared in some areas including Malaysia. Because they primarily feed on jellyfish, they often mistake floating pollution like balloons and plastic bags for prey which leads to their death.
Hawksbills are also endangered turtles due to human impact, but mostly because of poaching. Despite their protected status, hawksbill eggs are still consumed around the world. They are also often killed for their flesh and even their beautiful shells as the demand for tortoises shell items like jewelry rises.
Kemp's ridleys and Olive ridleys
The Kemp's ridley sea turtle is the most endangered species with only about 1,000 nesting females worldwide. They are often caught by shrimp trawlers, and their eggs were over-harvested during the last century. Adults and juveniles were also killed for their meat. Olive ridley turtles are similarly at risk because of the collection of eggs, poaching, and accidental capture in fishing gear.
Flatbacks used to be at risk of extinction by dingoes and foxes. However, thanks to predator control programs, this is no longer the case. Their greatest threats today include accidental capture in fishing gear, pollution, and destruction of nesting beaches.
Sea Turtle Conservation
Efforts to prevent sea turtle extinction include passing laws and taking steps to reduce human impact. In the US, sea turtles are protected by the ESA - the Endangered Species Act. The law makes it illegal to harm, harass, or kill any sea turtles, hatchlings, or eggs. It also makes the importing, selling, or transporting of turtles or their products illegal. States where sea turtles nest have also passed their own laws that meet or exceed the ESA. For example, some states like Florida have enacted regulations to eliminate or reduce beachfront lighting that disorients hatchlings.
There are also international agreements that control trade in endangered and threatened species. Sea turtles are covered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in all countries that signed the treaty.
Other efforts include buying up nesting areas to prevent development, using Turtle Excluder Devices or TEDs to reduce turtle deaths caused by commercial fishing, and continued law enforcement.
Saving Sea Turtles
There are active steps we can all take to help save the turtles. The first is to be aware of sea turtle nesting areas. Local laws and continued education efforts have tried to make residents and tourists aware of the dangers of disturbing turtles as they try to nest on beaches.
We should also make an effort to reduce waste and trash and never leave it on the beach. In fact, volunteering to spend a day cleaning up litter on a beach is a great way to help save the turtles.
Finally, helping to spread the word about the plight of the sea turtle will go a long way toward helping them survive. With a little bit of knowledge and a lot of passion, anyone can educate the people around them about the issues facing sea turtles today. Of course, donating to research and education programs is another way to help the cause.
Did you know that sea turtles are endangered? Honor one of these peaceful ocean dwellers today with a pair of handcrafted turtle earrings and we will give up to 25% to conservation.