Saturday, December 27, 2008

Why should we protect turtles?

As with any animal, turtles play an important ecological role in their preferred habitat … the sea. Removal of turtles, through over-exploitation or mismanagement of their environment (including nesting beaches), can have devastating consequences on both the marine ecosystem and all those who rely on it.

Take for example the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas). Green Turtles are herbivorous and feed on seagrass beds throughout the tropics. This species of turtle is often targeted for its meat, but also caught accidentally in commercial fisheries. Its nesting sites are often destroyed through coastal developments. The species, as with other turtle species, is listed as Endangered on the IUCN’s red list and if we do not take care soon there will be no wild turtles left for our grand children to enjoy.

So why are turtles important?

A young Green turtle in its foraging grounds, photo MCS-UK

Green Turtles are one of the few animals that eat sea grass and in are in fact considered keystone species in many areas, as they play a major role in determining the community structure essential in maintaining healthy seagrass beds. Like a normal grass lawn on land, seas grass beds need to be constantly cut short to keep healthy. Cropping by hungry Green turtles, allows the sea grass to spread across the sea floor rather than just getting longer and older grass blades. The fresh young leaves from cropped plants, have a high nutritional value and support a wide range of other smaller herbivorous animals, which are eaten by bigger carnivorous fish, which are in turn eaten by humans.

A healthy seagrass bed supporting many species of fish, shellfish and crustaceans, photo J.H Harmelin

As seagrass beds are vital breeding and nursery grounds for many species of fish, shellfish and crustaceans (many of which are commercially exploited), if these animals cannot breed successfully, and their young are unable to develop an mature, their populations will eventually decline.

Fresh fish from local markets, photo John Nevill

As the populations of commercial species decline, fishermen are unable to meet demand for fish, shellfish and crustaceans. People who rely on these as their staple diet either starve or may take to crime to make ends meet.

Tourism, is often a major source of income for many coastal communities, photo Elise Bromley

As many coastal areas also rely on tourism, when the crime rates go up, the tourist stay away leading to loss of jobs and even more hardship for coastal communities which eventually impact people living further inland.

Indeed the question really is, why shouldn’t we protect turtles?

Turtles have existed for over 100 million years, travelling unhindered throughout the world's oceans. Today, they are struggling to survive, mainly because of things people are doing to the oceans and beaches. It is possible that a world in which turtles continue to die in large numbers, may soon become a world in which humans struggle to survive.

If, however, we learn from our mistakes and begin changing our behavior, there is still time to save turtles from extinction. In the process, we will not only be saving one of the world’s most mysterious creatures, a survivor from the age of the dinosaurs, we might just be saving ourselves too!

A survivor from the age of the dinosaurs and the age of modern man? photo Donn du Preez


I Love Seychelles said...

Good to see that people in the Seychelles care about those turtles. Unfortunately during my stay I didn't see any turtles. Saw plenty of giant tortoises though.

Is there any recent information on how the turtle population of the Seychelles is doing?


turtle chick said...

Hi Sebastiaan,

Although the nesting season runs from October to February, it peaks in December so if you want to see nesting turtles you need to come back in December. Otherwise you can see juvenile turtles feeding on the reefs pretty much everywhere all year round.

As for population data, in 2004 Dr Jeanne Mortimer (turtle consultant) estimated that there is a nesting population of about 475 to 775 female Hawksbill turtles and about 2,000 nesting Green turtles in Seychelles.

Whether this has increased, decreased or remained unchanged in the past 5 years is unclear.