Six of the seven species of sea turtles are considered threatened or endangered under various national and international laws and treaties, including the US Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
The reasons why sea turtles are endangered are well-known:
- Turtles are killed or their eggs taken for their value as trinkets, aphrodisiacs and food, which are traded internationally or consumed domestically. Sea turtles are killed as victims of fishing operations.
- Their critical habitat is destroyed for tourist developments, dredging of ports, toxic plastic, and other pollution
- Increasing climate change which is reducing hatching success of eggs by killing incubating turtle nests caused by too high sand temperatures, destruction of nests from rising seas, and increased frequency and severity of storms.
Despite laws to protect sea turtles, direct exploitation continues and is quantified in a recent scientific publication by Jesse Senko, Kayla Burgher and several additional coauthors. Global patterns of illegal marine turtle exploitation in Global Change Biology, conservatively estimates that at least 1.1 million sea turtles were illegally caught between 1990 and 2020 globally.
The authors note “the results herein almost certainly represent only a fraction of actual illegal exploitation…” due to many factors, including the clandestine nature of the activities and limited amount of the activity that ever sees the light of day.
The Good News
Over the three decade period in the study, sea turtle poaching decreased by almost 1/3, from around 61,000 illegally caught sea turtles each year between 2000-2009 to around 44,000 in the past decade.
Additionally, most sea turtles were exploited from populations that were both relatively large and genetically diverse, though even these populations remain well below historical numbers.
The Bad News
Despite national and international laws, tens of thousands of turtles continue to be killed annually. Since 2010, most were hawksbill turtles killed for their beautiful shells to make jewelry and other curios, as well as green turtles, also killed for their beautiful shells and meat.
The report states, “When all data sources are taken into account, nearly 75% of exploitation (i.e., number of turtles exploited) between 1990 and 2020 occurred in five countries: Haiti (31%), Tanzania (20%), Honduras (10%), Indonesia (7%), and Mexico…In all, 14 countries had estimated increases in exploitation over time, with Mexico having the largest rise in exploitation.”
Turtles were poached for their domestic market or for international trade (trafficked).
“Six destination countries had documented trafficking in multiple decades, with Australia, Indonesia, and Japan showing a decrease in imported turtles and China, Vietnam, and Russia showing an increase in imported turtles.”
90% of these animals end up in China or Japan.
What’s to Be Done? And how can you help!
When you travel, don’t purchase sea turtle products such as “tortoise shell jewelry”
- If you see “tortoise shell jewelry” or other turtle curios for sale report it using this free app available to download here: https://www.seeturtles.org/see-shell or report at this website https://www.tooraretowear.org/report-turtleshell.
- Other proof of sea turtle products for sale (for example boots, shoes and purses made of turtle skin, and meat or eggs on menus or in markets) can be emailed to email@example.com. Photographs are especially helpful–but not worth endangering your safety.
- Donate to grassroots organizations that work to protect sea turtles such as Turtle Island Restoration Network, SeeTurtles.org and local organizations around the world.