This Sunday, the 16th of June, is World Sea Turtle Day, and we are on a vital mission to keep Sea Turtle Foundation working to save the ancient sea creatures who help keep our ocean’s seagrass beds and coral reefs healthy. As resources allocated for environmental protection get stretched further and further, we cannot continue without your support.
Six out of seven the world’s sea turtle species call Australia home, but many of our turtles are not doing too well. Despite reports that globally some turtle populations are on the increase, it seems that Australian populations are generally either decreasing, or we do not have sufficient information to actually know how they are faring.
In 2017, the Australian Federal Government published the Australian Marine Turtle Recovery Plan, which outlined threats to all species of turtles and highlighted our lack of understanding of the trajectories of many of our turtle populations.
The Recovery Plan shows that green turtles of the southern Great Barrier Reef continue to recover from near extinction since commercial hunting for a canned soup industry was banned in 1959 and; flatback turtle populations in eastern Queensland appear to be stable; but unfortunately, this is where the good news ends.
Other turtle populations in Australia are either decreasing, or we do not have sufficient information to truly understand what is happening to numbers. The leatherback turtle has not nested on the Queensland coast since 1996 and is now considered functionally extinct in Queensland. Hawksbill turtles, which have been monitored in the northern Great Barrier Reef for more than 20 years, are declining at a worrying rate and a soon-to-be-released report estimates that the population will be gone within two decades if we do not take action now.
Fishing activities, marine pollution, coastal development and climate change are all contributing to the decline of turtles. These issues have a cumulative impact on turtle species, and in most cases are not being addressed effectively, if at all.
Ocean plastic is finally attracting global attention as the volume of plastics entering our oceans is having catastrophic effects on marine life. Research is showing than more and more dead turtles are being found with internal blockages caused by plastic they have eaten. It is believed that in some parts of the world, one hundred percent of turtles have plastic in their gut and research led by CSIRO found that a turtle swallows a single piece of plastic has a twenty percent chance of dying from the plastic.
Changing global climate due to human-produced carbon emissions is wreaking havoc on turtle populations. The number of baby turtles being produced in many places is plummeting because nesting beaches are being washed away in extreme weather, eggs are being roasted in hot sand and the sex-ratios of hatchlings in some populations are being so extremely skewed toward females that breeding may not be an option within decades. Seagrass beds and coral reefs are being destroyed by intense cyclones and sediment flowing from rivers during major floods.
It is devastating to be with researchers in the field observing plummeting numbers of young turtles in feeding grounds where there should be hundreds; recording decades of continued declines in the number of turtles coming ashore to nest on islands in the northern Great Barrier Reef; and watching as weeks of extreme weather hammers a vital hawksbill nesting beach, washing away sand and the eggs that were so carefully laid there.
So, what can you do?
- Commonwealth and state governments must commit to reducing carbon emissions. This means no new coal mines and no new coal-powered electricity projects for a start. We must all band together to put pressure on governments around the world and support campaigns to reduce impacts on the marine environment. We should all take the time to think about our own carbon footprint.
- Reduce your use of plastic and make sure anything you use can be recycled.
- Volunteer your time to beach clean ups, or simply pick up rubbish wherever you see it.
- Look into how sustainable your seafood actually is. The Australian Marine Conservation Society produce a great seafood guide to help you do this.
- Support Sea Turtle Foundation to continue to educate communities, support researchers and take action to protect turtles
It is crucial that we understand the trajectory of our turtle populations. We have the largest green and flatback turtle nesting rookeries on the planet and we still don’t know if they are sustainable. We need clear research objectives and funds dedicated to answering them.
We need answers; scientists, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land and sea managers and the government all need answers to understand the status of our turtles and improve management to ensure their long-term sustainability. Without any evidence of populations increasing, we must take a precautionary approach and assume these populations are in decline, because all indicators are certainly pointing in that direction.
The number of marine turtles that require care and intervention across Australia has increased. In September, Sea Turtle Foundation will host the biennial Turtle Health and Rehabilitation Symposium on the Gold Coast, Queensland. This will bring together the country’s leading veterinarians, researchers and rehabilitators to discuss the latest understandings of health issues affecting turtles and what is leading turtles to end up in need of direct human interventions.
If we do not all act soon, it is unclear how many generations of Australians will get to celebrate World Sea Turtle Day, before it becomes a day of commemoration for lost species.
Support Sea Turtle Foundation to continue this important work.