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Marine turtles

Hawksbill turtle, Grand Cayman, Caribbean
Scientific name: Cheloniidae / Dermochelyidae families
Extinction risk: Endangered to Critically Endangered
Habitat: open seas, coastal waters, coral reefs, seagrass beds

About marine turtles

Marine turtles have survived on Earth for more than 100 million years – which means they pre-date some dinosaurs. There are seven species – hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, flatback, olive ridley, Kemp's ridley and green turtle. They’re mainly found in temperate and tropical waters.

Marine turtles are excellent navigators – they often migrate hundreds, even thousands of kilometres between feeding and nesting grounds. Male turtles never leave the sea, but females come ashore to lay eggs – amazingly to the same beach where they themselves hatched.

Our turtle population estimates are based on the egg-laying females – we can’t be sure of the numbers of elusive sea-dwelling males, or females that aren’t breeding. But we do know marine turtles face lots of threats – and at least six of the seven species are at risk of extinction.

Find out how you can help save marine turtles

Why marine turtles matter

Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). Indo-Pacific Ocean.

Turtles are important predators that help to keep marine food chains healthy. For instance, hawksbill turtles eat (and so control the numbers of) marine sponges, which would otherwise out-compete reef-building corals. By eating sponges, the turtles protect coral reefs – crucial habitats for the survival of many other animals.

Turtles elsewhere do similar things – like grazing on seagrass beds to keep them clipped and healthy. The leatherback turtle is a major predator of jellyfish, which eat fish larvae – so turtles stop jellyfish from depleting fish stocks, which benefits other animals in the food chain, and people too.


Threats to marine turtles

Due to the many natural dangers faced by hatchlings and young turtles, only about one in 1,000 makes it to adulthood. So they don’t need people putting extra challenges in their way.

Habitat destruction

One of the main threats turtles face is the destruction of their habitats. For instance, development along coastlines is destroying nesting beaches, making it impossible for female turtles to dig their nests. It also affects hatchlings – when they emerge from their nest, hatchlings follow the light of the moon to make it to the sea. But over-lit beach resorts and sands strewn with litter, can disorient and hinder a hatchling’s path to the sea.

Fishing

Another threat to marine turtles is their accidental capture in fishing gear. Marine turtles need to get to the surface to breathe, and if they get caught up in nets and hooks, they can drown. Overfishing and unsustainable fishing methods are also damaging important turtle feeding grounds, such as seagrass beds and coral reefs.  

Poaching

Turtles are also poached for their meat and shells, and nests are raided for eggs, which are seen as a delicacy in some cultures. In south-east Asia, exploitation of hawksbill turtle eggs is near 100% in many areas. 

Climate change

Another emerging threat is climate change. The sex of turtle hatchlings is determined by the temperature in the nest – warmer temperatures produce females and cooler temperatures produce males. With global warming, this could skew sex ratios and threaten the long-term viability of some populations.

Climate change is also causing sea levels to rise, and increase the number, and the intensity, of storms. This will damage and destroy nesting beaches.

Hatchling leatherback turtle leaving a trail of footprints

How WWF is helping protect marine turtles

Reducing the impact of fisheries

We’re reducing the negative impact of fishing practices on turtles by promoting the use of less-harmful fishing gear – for example, ‘circle hooks’ instead of traditional ‘j’ hooks can reduce accidental capture of turtles by up to 80%.

Protecting habitats

We’re helping protect marine turtle habitats. For example, along the coast of east Africa we’re identifying important nesting sites and working with local people to help protect those beaches and the turtles that use them.  

Reducing illegal wildlife trade

We’re also working with TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring network) to reduce the illegal trade in marine turtles and related products, and helping governments to enforce restrictions on this trade.


Baby turtles hatch on Juani Island.

Success story: official protection for leatherback and hawksbill turtles

For 10 years, we’ve been working to get official protection for the leatherback and hawksbill turtles that nest along Colombia’s Caribbean coastline.

This was finally achieved in 2014 with a new turtle sanctuary in an area previously affected by beach pollution and egg harvesting.

Development will be prohibited along the beach and there will be government funding for the nests to be monitored. This will create a safe haven for these two marine turtle species.

How you can help protect marine turtles