Travel & Tourism

Marine turtles: Tourism, Research and Conservation

See also: https://www.wildlifetourism.org.au/turtle-workshops-june-2021/

Ronda Green, PhD (chair Wildlife Tourism Australia)

Dr Jennifer Gilbert with a green turtle at the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre
on Fitzroy Island, Far North Queensland.

Meeting a turtle underwater is often a highlight of a snorkelling or SCUBA session. These large and impressive animals roam the warmer waters of the world, surfacing mainly to breathe and coming ashore only to lay their eggs. Juveniles tend to live far out to sea, the adults closer to coastlines.

For how many more years or decades will we be able to enjoy sharing our oceans with them? What dangers do they face? What research is needed? Can tourism help?

This is the topic of our turtle network and a workshop during our webinars in June.

The networking has already begun but you can still join in.

We will discuss:

  • What are the major threats in each region?
  • What needs to be done (practically, not just a general statement) in each particular local case? (lobby government, change tourism practices, enact and enforce conservation laws, restrict certain industries, educate the public, educate officials, find compromises in fishing methods, do more research …?)
  • Which solutions might require funding? What actually for?
  • How can networking and partnerships help? Within and between countries? (again, actual specific suggestions or examples, not just general statements)
  • What are some success stories that can be used to guide actions in other regions?
  • Do some countries have more effective legislation or enforcement than others?

First, some background information …

The turtles of the world

There is not just one species of marine turtle. Nor are there dozens.

There are only seven species of marine turtle in the world, and they are not interchangeable: there are big differences in their distributions, egg-laying sites, ecology and general behaviour.

Three species are considered by IUCN to be endangered, two of them critically so. The others are either considered vulnerable (but may be locally endangered in some regions) or. the information. is too limited for an assessment.

Leatherback

Dermochelys coriacea. The giant of the turtles, also the deepest diving and most widespread, and the only living member of its family, Dermochelyidae (other living species are all in Cheloniidae)

  • Distribution: All oceans of the world, and travels vast distances
  • Main egg-laying regions: South & Central America, West Africa, Coral Triangle
  • Conservation status (IUCN): Vulnerable 
  • Diet: Mainly jellyfish

Green turtle

Chelonia mydas. The world’s second largest hardback turtle, and the only fully herbivorous one

  • Distribution: All warm oceans of the world
  • Main egg-laying regions: Tortuguero (Costa Rica) & Raine Island (Great Barrier Reef)
  • Conservation status (IUCN): Endangered
  • Diet: Herbivorous (sea-grass and algae). Juveniles omnivorous 

Loggerhead turtle

Caretta caretta Largest hardback turtle. Very powerful jaws for cracking shells and exoskeletons

  • Distribution: All warm oceans
  • Main egg-laying regions: Widespread nut mostly Middle East & SE USA
  • Conservation status (IUCN):Vulnerable
  • Diet: omnivorous (mostly bottom-dwelling invertebrates)

Hawksbill turtle

Eretmochelys imbricata Unusual in  feeding primarily on sponges

  • Distribution: Widespread in warm waters
  • Main egg-laying regions: Central America, Coral Triangle
  • Conservation status (IUCN): Critically endangered
  • Diet: omnivorous (especially sponges but including seagrasses, algae, sea cucumbers, soft corals and shellfish)

Kemps Ridley turtle

Lepidochelys kempii The rarest and most endangered species, and the only species that lays eggs in daylight, females often conjugating to lay eggs (only the Ridley turtle species gather together for this)

  • Distribution: North America – Atlantic coast
  • Main egg-laying regions: Gulf Coast of North America
  • Conservation status (IUCN): Critically endangered
  • Diet: omnivorous (including algae, jellyfish, molluscs, crustaceans and fish)

Olive Ridley turtle

Lepidochelys olivacea Smallest marine turtle, and most numerous. Sometimes females conjugate in thousands to lay eggs

  • Distribution: Pacific and Indian Oceans
  • Main egg-laying regions: The coast of Odisha in India, Pacific coast of Central America and Mexico
  • Conservation status (IUCN): Vulnerable
  • Diet: omnivorous (including crabs, echinoderms, shellfish and gastropods)

Flatback turtle

Natator depressa Entirely coastal – no pelagic phase. Most restricted turtle species

  • Distribution: Northern Australia &  neighbouring islands
  • Main egg-laying regions: Northern Australia, especially Crab Island, Torres Strait 
  • Conservation status (IUCN): ? Data deficient
  • Diet: carnivorous (soft coral, jellyfish etc)

Threats to turtles

Turtles face many problems

Dr Abeer Bilbeisi, chair of the Jordan Society for Conservation of Turtles and Tortoises, with an injured turtle

Females are often 20 or 30 years old before they begin breeding, which can slow down population replenishment

Like all reptiles, they breathe air directly with lungs, meaning that if they are trapped underwater (e.g. b a prawn trawler) they drown, and also that their young need to hatch from eggs on land (buried on sandy beaches)

Most turtles migrate over long distances, making it difficult for researchers to answer essential questions about their ecological needs, and also meaning that legislation protecting them in some countries may be non-existent or not enforced in others

Major threats include:

  • Climate change: rising sea-levels on nesting beaches; rising sand temperatures increasng female:male ratio of hatchlings
  • Harvesting: eggs, meat, souvenirs (shell ornaments, whole stuffed turtles)
  • By-catch: especially drowning when tangled in fish nets and prawn trawlers
  • Plastics: especially when eaten in mistake for jellyfish and other marine creatures
  • Other pollution
  • Silting: soil erosion, often many kilometres from coast, smothering corals, algae and sea-grass
  • Lights: torches, street lights, residences, resorts, tourists, deterring females from coming ashore to lay and disorienting hatchlings heading to sea
  • Direct disturbance: harassment, riding
  • Habitat destruction: oil exploration, other industry, resorts, residential
  • Feral predators

Organisations helping turtles

Several international conventions and societies such as CITES, the Convention on Migratory Species and WWF help to conserve turtles. Government departments in most countries where turtles visit or nest at least have Environment departments, and sometimes more specialised entities such as Australia’s GBRMPA (Great Barrier Reef Marine Protection Authority). There are many NGOs trying g to protect marine life, some of them specifically focusing on turtles (from local groups such as Wildlife Tourism Australia member who raised the issue of collaboration with others, the Jordan Society for Conservation of Turtles and Tortoises, to large organisations like the Sea Turtle Conservancy). Some (as in the photo above) rescue and rehabilitate turtles. Some tourism operations participate in turtle conservation or research. Sharing news and ideas between these would be one of the major purposes of our network an d webinar.

Getting involved in our workshop and webinar

If you would like to join our networking for change of information (on turtles in your region, current or proposed research, conservation projects, tourism involving conservation or research etc.), ideas for future projects or collaborations, or to ask questions, contact me (Ronda) with your name, country and involvement or interest in turtles.

The turtle workshop (in two sections in different time zones, in an attempt to accommodate our global group of delegates) will form part of our webinars in June. https://www.wildlifetourism.org.au/wildlife-tourism-conference-brisbane-2021/

There is a small fee for the workshop (which can be waived if you are having difficulty paying) but no fee for the networking

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