Sea turtles struggle to survive as an endangered species in a world ruled by humans. Due to climate change, overfishing, and exploitation, sea turtles face life threatening conditions across the world’s oceans and beaches. Conservation initiatives focus on tracking sea turtle migration, identifying their genetic diversity, and protecting their habitat.
Almost half of all sea turtle species are critically endangered. While the marine animals spend lengthy periods of time on and under the water, they crawl onto the coast for basking or nesting purposes. The mixed habitats put them at additional risk, since both water and land are dominated by human activity.
The ocean ecosystem falls victim to the devastating effects of climate change. Increasingly warm temperatures destroy foraging areas like coral reefs and seagrass beds, thus compromising the turtles’ nutrition. Further, the spike in temperature impacts the sex of turtle hatchlings, as evidenced by the decline in male sea turtles.
Further, unregulated fishing using trawl nets is a common cause of sea turtle mortality. While fishermen target other marine species, the accidental sea turtle bycatch ends up injured or dead, increasing the animal’s mortality rate.
Water pollution damages oceans and their inhabitants equally. Discarded fishing gear and floating plastics can entangle sea turtles, trapping them in place until they die. Some sea turtles may also eat plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish, which can result in suffocation.
Sea turtle habitat loss is another factor detrimental to their survival. Human onshore activities such as coastal development and beach traffic disturb sea turtle nesting grounds. For example, the use of vehicles on beaches compacts the sand, creating an obstacle for female sea turtles who need to dig nests for their eggs.
The sea turtle trade follows an unsustainable pattern which threatens the animals’ survival. The sea turtle is a valuable good, providing countless communities around the world with eggs and meat as food. Additionally, illegal international trafficking of sea turtles for their skin and shells continues despite being officially banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Nonprofit organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launch initiatives to protect and promote a better life for sea turtles around the globe. For instance, the WWF collaborates with fisheries, recommending circle fishing hooks attached to nets which are more turtle-friendly. It also developed a special lighting system to detect and prevent sea turtle bycatch.
The WWF organizes awareness campaigns in coastal regions to emphasize the importance of maintaining safe, clean areas for nesting sea turtles. Other important initiatives promoting sea turtle conservation focus on tracking migration patterns.
Satellite tracking enables scientists to monitor the movement of sea turtles, thereby providing data on the location of their feeding grounds. Analyzing collected data can help researchers demarcate key areas where sea turtles are most likely to encounter fishing operations.
In May 2022, a group of researchers from the University of Florida led a groundbreaking study to track sea turtles using a novel DNA detection method. The team collected environmental DNA (eDNA) left by sea turtles in beach sand.
The eDNA provided important clues about the turtles’ numbers, migration, and diversity. Genetic information reveals the sea turtle’s species, place of origin, and subpopulation as well.
Some eDNA samples also contained genetic material from bacteria and viruses, highlighting common infections that affect sea turtles. Using this information can guide conservation efforts and tailor treatments for fatal diseases, including the cancerous fibropapillomatosis afflicting the majority of Floridian green sea turtles.
Compiling more long-term data can enable researchers to determine the growth or decline of species over time, which will help conservationists monitor the effectiveness of their projects and keep an eye on the turtles’ survival.