Marine turtles have survived on earth for more than 100 million years, living in open waters and coastal habitats. There are seven species of marine turtle, many of which migrate for thousands of kilometres – even across entire oceans – between feeding and nesting grounds.
Six of the seven species are classified as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Endangered Species.
Male turtles do not leave the sea but female turtles come ashore to lay their eggs on sandy beaches during the nesting season - during which a female can lay hundreds of eggs. However, relatively few young turtles reach maturity. Hatchlings are often killed by predators such as crabs, foxes and birds as they make their way from the nest to the sea. Once in the sea, many more small turtles are taken by fish. The long time to reach maturity and the many natural dangers faced by hatchlings and juveniles mean that as few as 1 in 1,000 eggs will survive to adulthood.
Challenges and threats
The drastic decline in marine turtle populations around the world is due in part to hunting and poaching for their meat, eggs, skin and shell. In many countries, young marine turtle are caught, stuffed and sold to tourists as curios. International trade still exists despite all seven species being listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which prohibits international trade in all marine turtles species and their parts.
Tens of thousands of marine turtles die each year when they become trapped in fishing and shrimping nets and on hooks. Known as bycatch, this accidental capture is one of the greatest threats to marine turtles.
Like many endangered species, marine turtles are vulnerable to the changes in their habitat. The coral reefs and seagrass beds where it likes to feed are being damaged and destroyed by destructive fishing practices and sedimentation as a result of human activities on land. Disturbance on nesting beaches can make it impossible for female turtles to dig nests.
It is a natural part of the marine turtle life cycle, that few of the eggs laid will hatch into turtles and survive to adulthood - but the disturbances caused by humans; harvesting turtle eggs, disturbing or degrading nesting beaches and feeding grounds means the scales become tipped even more heavily against marine turtles.
WWF in action
WWF works on many aspects of marine turtle conservation such as reducing the loss and degradation of marine turtle habitats, reducing the negative impact of bycatch on marine turtles and reducing the unsustainable use and illegal trade in marine turtles and turtle products and working with TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring network) to help governments enforce restrictions on the trade in live animals and marine turtle products.
Colombia, where WWF is working to increase the number of marine and coastal areas under protection is one example of WWF’s marine turtle conservation work. Colombia has coastlines on both the Pacific ocean and the Caribbean sea and is home to five of the seven species of marine turtle. We are also supporting fishermen in using equipment and fishing methods that are less harmful to the marine turtle. Turtle populations are being monitored to increase our knowledge of different species. This information will help us create conservation strategies that reduce the deterioration and fragmentation of species’ habitats. They will also help us to persuade the Colombian government to incorporate marine conservation considerations into development policies, the tourism sector and the fishing sector.