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Save Sea Turtles and Sea Turtle Habitats

by Deborah Mitchell
The Challenge

Sea turtles have existed for more than 100 million years, but today they are struggling for their lives and their future. The ability of sea turtles to survive threats from their most formidable enemy — humans — depends on our willingness to change how we are impacting the environment, theirs and ours.

Sea turtles play key roles in ecosystems that are critical to them as well as to humans: the oceans, beaches, and dunes. If sea turtles were to become extinct, the negative impact on beaches and the oceans would be enormous.

In the oceans, for example, sea turtles, especially green sea turtles, are one of the very few creatures (manatees are another) that eat a type of vegetation called sea grass that grows on the sea floor. Sea grass must be kept short to remain healthy, and beds of healthy sea grass are essential breeding and development areas for many species of fish and other marine life. A decline or loss of sea grass beds would mean a loss of the marine species that directly depend on the beds, which would trigger a chain reaction and negatively impact marine and human life. When one part of an ecosystem is destroyed, the other parts may follow.

Beaches and dunes are a fragile ecosystem that does not get many nutrients to support its vegetation, which is needed to help prevent erosion. Sea turtles contribute nutrients to dune vegetation from their eggs. Every year, sea turtles lay countless numbers of eggs in beaches during nesting season. Along one twenty-mile stretch of beach in Florida alone, for example, more than 150,000 pounds of eggs are laid each year. Nutrients from hatched eggs as well as from eggs that never hatch and from hatchlings that fail to make it into the ocean are all sources of nutrients for dune vegetation. A decline in the number of sea turtles means fewer eggs laid, less nutrients for the sand dunes and its vegetation, and a higher risk for beach erosion.

All seven species of sea turtles (loggerhead, Kemp's ridley, olive ridley, hawksbill, green, leatherback, flatback) are protected by the Endangered Species Act; six are endangered and one (loggerhead) is threatened. One reason sea turtles are in jeopardy is human demand for sea turtle parts (meat and shells) which continues to rise, even though international trade in such items is illegal under the Conventional for International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Other dangers to sea turtles include entanglement in commercial fishing nets, pollution, poaching (of eggs), and dredging of coastal areas.

The plight of sea turtles has been recognized by concerned people around the world, and they can use your help to preserve these ancient creatures and their habitats.

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Sea turtles migrate thousands of miles to beaches around the world to lay their eggs and to ensure perpetuation of the species. Where would you like to go to help them?

  • Be part of the sea turtle conservation effort in Ecuador, where there are nine different locations your efforts will be appreciated. Volunteer for 2 weeks or longer and help during nesting season or with tagging, diving, and/or collecting samples.
  • In Kenya, be part of the Watamu Turtle Watch.Volunteers help with beach patrols, nest excavation, turtle releases, and research.
  • An Ecovolunteer project in Thailand focuses on the leatherback, green turtle, and olive ridley (click on "Reptiles: Sea Turtles"). Volunteers help with these species as well as survey mangroves and reefs.
  • In Costa Rica on the Pacific coast, you can help monitor turtle nesting areas and record data, clear the beaches to facilitate nesting, and go on nightly patrols to protect the sea turtles. Stay as little as one week or up to four.
  • Archelon in Greece offers a variety of opportunities to protect sea turtles. Zakynthos, Peloponnesus, and Crete are major nesting areas and need volunteers to monitor the beaches. Nesting and hatching season runs from May through October. In Athens, the Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Centre can use volunteers year-round for rehabilitation projects. There is a four-week minimum stay requirement.

Habitat destruction, human activity, and pollution are causing the numbers of sea turtles to decline at an alarming rate. Volunteers like you can help keep these magnificent creatures a part of the ecosystems that help sustain us all.

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