Yesterday was World Turtle Day. A handful of these animal days instigate real change and awareness, but the reality is that most give people something to talk about on social media for a few minutes and are forgotten by the next day. In my opinion, these species should be in the forefront of our minds all year round. It’s predominantly our actions that are threatening them with extinction, and our actions that can help save them before it becomes too late.
If there’s one thing that is becoming clear over the course of my time with Lang Tengah Turtle Watch it’s that sea turtle conservation is a SERIOUS challenge. Especially in countries like Malaysia, where issues with consumption, lack of protective legislation, enforcement, and awareness make problems even harder to deal with.
The natural survival rate of a green sea turtle hatchling is 1 in 1000, however if human impacts are taken into consideration, estimates are more like 1 in 4000. Needless to say, this is an extraordinarily low chance of success.
Here are some of the human-induced reasons why green sea turtles need our help, along with a few suggestions of things you can be doing to reduce your impacts.
These days, the public are becoming more aware of the impacts of single use plastics. Still, an estimated 8 million metric tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean each year. These plastics pose threats in both their initial state, and throughout the disintegration process into micro plastics. Consumption of plastic and entanglement are both big issues for turtles.
If we continue the way we’re going, it’s estimated that by 2025 the amount of plastic entering the ocean each year will reach 160 million tonnes. That equates to 100 bags of plastic per foot of coastline. We should all be doing as much as we can to reduce our plastic consumption.
Egg and Meat Consumption
Why anyone would want to eat a turtle egg is beyond me. They taste gross by all accounts, never solidify and can actually be dangerous to human health. Still, here in Peninsular Malaysia, consumption of eggs poses the single biggest threat to sea turtles. In fact, Leatherback turtles, which were once abundant in this region, have become entirely extinct almost exclusively as a result of egg consumption. One way to directly prevent eggs from being sold for consumption is to adopt a clutch of turtle eggs. Check out Lang Tengah Turtle Watch’s website here.
Similarly, why do people think it is okay to eat the meat of a species that is under serious threat all over the world? It is very difficult to instigate change where culture and tradition is involved. But the more we can spread awareness about just how detrimental consumption of turtle eggs and meat is to turtle populations the better chance we have of reducing it.
You may not be aware that green sea turtles are susceptible to fibropapillomatosis virus, from the same family that is responsible for cervical cancer in humans. This infectious disease results in large proliferating tumours which can impede a turtle’s ability to breathe, swim, see and develop. Although the disease occurs naturally, it is found in much higher concentrations in areas with high levels of pollution and agricultural runoff. Thus human activity is making this disease more common.
Did you know that sex of sea turtles is determined by temperature? For green sea turtles a temperature of 29.3 degrees celsius results in an even ratio of males and females. Any cooler and you get all males. Any hotter and you get all females. Obviously a skewed ratio is not sustainable for reproduction. Hotter temperatures also speed up the hatching process, which can result in turtle babies coming out too early, before they have finished absorbing their yolk sac which provides them with all the energy they need.
LTTW has been experimenting with different types of roofing on our hatcheries to help keep nests cool, as well as watering them with a watering can, which has been successful so far! For a million different reasons, we should all be conscious of our impact on the climate.
Coastal Developments and Lights
Nesting mothers are extremely susceptible to white lights. Therefore resorts and other beachfront developments that light up the coast are extremely detrimental to the nesting process, as turtles are often too frightened or disorientated to lay their eggs near white light.
Whilst adult turtles are frightened by white light, hatchlings are actually attracted to it! Naturally, the brightest light at night will be the moon and stars reflected off the sea, which is one of the ways hatchlings determine which direction to go. Lights can interfere with this, making poor hatchlings wind up running inland towards developments, or even into beach fires.
For this reason, if you are ever visiting a nesting beach, please refrain from using any white light, including phone backlights, and never light fires!
Feral and Invasive Animals
Unfortunately, turtle eggs make an easy snack for a variety of introduced predators, including cats, foxes and invasive seabirds. In countries where nests are left to naturally develop, these pose serious threats. Where hatcheries are involved, like here in Malaysia, this is less of an issue.
In Australia, legislation dictates that fishing nets must include TEDS – turtle excluder devices. These ensure that if a turtle does get caught in fishing nets, they are able to escape through a specially designed opening, which also allows larger animals like sharks and stingrays to get out. Unfortunately lots of countries do not enforce the use of TEDs, which means turtles are susceptible to becoming bycatch.
In addition to active fishing nests, abandoned fishing nets, long lines, fish traps and other man made fishing devices are also responsible for the trapping and entanglement of large proportions of animals and plants, including turtles. An estimated 640, 000 tonnes of fishing equipment is left in the ocean every year. This equipment can also trap birds, crustaceans, fish and mammals, and destroy coral reefs in a process referred to as ‘ghost fishing’. Reducing our consumption of sea food is one of the easiest ways to reduce the impact of the fishing industry.
A massive thank you to everyone who supported my campaign to adopt a clutch of green sea turtle eggs. A nest of 80 eggs was purchased on the 22nd of May! Without your support, those eggs would have ended up for sale at the market. So well done!