Contributing Monkie Jennifer Buonantony
Published on December 21, 2009
Can the Humans be stopped? Will we end a 200 million year run, just because we can? I know we are the dominate species on the planet, we prove that all the time. We love proving it. We are genius at making deadly devices large and small. Amazing robot aircraft which can kill entire villages at will. Nothing has ever lived, as deadly as us. But the real question is, do we have to be? Can’t we grow out of this? Do we have to kill everything and everyone? Do we have to turn everything into a weapon? Must the ocean it’s self be a weapon against the animals which call it home? For example, the Leatherback sea turtle has lived on this planet for 200 million years. They survived massive asteroid impacts, dinosaurs, sharks, and things we can’t even imagine. But as soon as we show up.. bye bye, it’s end of the ride for you Mr. Turtle.
Can we be stopped? Will we save the oceans from ourselves? Obviously, we can do anything, we just need to put our minds to work.
The seven species of modern sea turtles have changed very little from their ancient ancestors. They include: Green Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle, Kemp’s Ridley Turtle, Olive Ridley Turtle, Loggerhead Turtle, Flatback Turtle and the Leatherback Turtle. All seven species are listed by the IUCN Red List as either endangered or critically endangered.
One of the most threatened is the Leatherback the largest turtle and largest living reptile in the world, weighing up to 2,000 pounds. Leatherbacks differ from all other sea turtles in that they don’t have a hard bony shell. They get their name from their distinct carapace a thin layer of fragile skin overlaying tiny bone plates which has a leathery appearance. Due to their large body size, high oil content, and a counter-current heat exchange system, Leatherbacks have the ability to keep their core body temperature at about twenty-five degrees Celsius higher than most ocean waters. This allows them to tolerate colder water and migrate more expansively.
In fact, Leatherbacks are the most migratory and wide-ranging of the sea turtles and are found in areas ranging from Trinidad to Nova Scotia. Because Leatherbacks make long migrations, they come into contact with people of many nations. That is why conservation efforts must become an international concern; protecting Leatherbacks in U.S. waters alone will not ensure their survival. Local people who notice a decline in sea turtle populations may be seeing the effects of human activities hundreds or even thousands of miles away. That is why one of the biggest challenges in sea turtle conservation is to effectively communicate to a diverse public including scientists, policy-makers, consumers, coastal landowners, tourists, and the media why sea turtles are endangered and what can be done to reverse these trends.
That is where WIDECAST, or The Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, comes into play. WIDECAST was founded in 1981 and is a partner organization of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in the Wider Caribbean Region. It consists of an international coalition of experts in more than 40 Caribbean nations and territories. They work and partner with local groups, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations to develop national Sea Turtle Recovery Action Plans and ensure the survival of the Caribbean Sea Turtle. WIDECAST is based at the Nicholas School Marine Laboratory of Duke University in Beaufort, North Carolina, and their mission is to realize a future where healthy populations of sea turtles fulfill their ecological roles and economic potential, and critical natural habitats are sustainably managed.
According to Dr. Karen Eckert, Executive Director of WIDECAST, the most serious threat to sea turtles is “the notion that we don’t have to work, really work, for the survival of ourselves and our planet. I think many people believe that someone with more money or more expertise or more experience or more time will somehow slow the frightful pace of extinction that we are now witnessing throughout the world. But the truth is that everyone has a role to play! We need to vote as if the survival of the planet mattered, we need to travel thoughtfully, we need to participate in local conservation initiatives, we need to read discriminatingly, and if we are able, we need to contribute financially to the cause. What could be more threatening to a population of sea turtles, to any species, than to have no one care whether they survive or not?” Her message is think globally, act locally!
According to this year’s IUCN report, there has been a reduction by over 70 percent of the global population of adult females in less than one generation. The IUCN cites persistent over-exploitation, especially of females, and widespread collection of eggs by poachers as being primarily responsible. In addition, sea turtles are both accidentally and intentionally captured in active or abandoned fishing gear, resulting in the death of tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of turtles annually. Moreover, coral reef and sea grass degradation, oil spills, chemical waste, persistent plastic and other marine debris, high density coastal development, and an increase in ocean-based tourism have damaged or eliminated nesting beaches and feeding areas.
Sea turtles spend most of their life in the water, leaving only to lay their eggs, which the female does by returning to the beach where she herself was hatched. The mature female (15-50 years old) digs a deep hole in which she lays her eggs, and nests on average every 2-5 years, depositing several clutches of around 100 eggs. Even before human contact, land animals like raccoons and wild pigs attack the eggs as prey. Once hatched, the turtles face crabs and birds as predators en route to the ocean and then fish and other sea predators during their first year of life. Tragically, it is thought that only one egg in up to 10,000 will actually reach reproductive age. Combined with the human factors of illegal poaching, the loss of nesting beaches due to commercial development and tourism, and the deaths of juvenile turtles netted and harpooned for their tasty meat and decorative shells, it’s no wonder sea turtles are highly endangered.
Although sea turtles are now protected by various international agreements and national laws, these regulations will not be effective unless the local inhabitants reach a consensus that they are worth upholding. Enforcing wildlife laws is not high priority in many tropical countries where sea turtles are found. According to Karen Eckert, “Regardless of the regulatory framework, sea turtles live or die every day as a result of decisions made by fisherman, coastal landowners, and other locals who encounter them. In order for a sea turtle to live another day, the person who encounters it has to live in a world where it makes sense to watch 100 pounds of meat swim away.”
Through the efforts of WIDECAST and Nature Seekers, some progress has been made to help the Leatherbacks. “Twenty years ago there were only a couple of sea turtle projects in the entire Caribbean region. Now I can hardly think of a nation in the Caribbean that doesn’t have at least one grassroots or national sea turtle project,” says Eckert.
These projects really are making a difference. To find out more about WIDECAST and how you can get involved, visit their website.
The Caribbean is a region that once supported sea turtle populations numbering in the millions. It is now home to some of the most visited tourist beaches of the world. So, before you kick off your flip-flops and swim in the crystal blue waters, remember that sea turtles have called these beaches home for millions of years and the opportunity to ensure their survival is quickly being carried out to sea. It’s no longer just a day at the beach.