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Sea Turtle

Overview

For more than 100 million years sea turtles have covered vast distances across the world's oceans, filling a vital role in the balance of marine habitats.

  • Scientific Name
    Cheloniidae and Dermochelyidae families
  • Length
    2-6 ft.
  • Habitats
    Open water and coasts

Seven different species of sea (or marine) turtles grace our ocean waters, from the shallow seagrass beds of the Indian Ocean, to the colorful reefs of the Coral Triangle, and even the sandy beaches of the Eastern Pacific. WWF’s work on sea turtles focuses on five of those species: green, hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback and olive ridley.

Human activities have tipped the scales against the survival of these ancient mariners. Nearly all species of sea turtle are classified as Endangered. Slaughtered for their eggs, meat, skin and shells, sea turtles suffer from poaching and over-exploitation. They also face habitat destruction and accidental capture in fishing gear. Climate change has an impact on turtle nesting sites. It alters sand temperatures, which then affects the sex of hatchlings.

WWF is committed to stop the decline of sea turtles and work for the recovery of the species. We work to secure environments in which both turtles—and the people that depend upon them—can survive into the future. 

View our sea turtle infographic

New Year Starts Off Right for Sea Turtles

The beginning of 2014 came with a number of positive news stories for sea turtles around the globe. Here's a look at a few.

flatback released with tag

Why They Matter

  • Fundamental Link in Marine Ecosystems

    Sea turtles are a fundamental link in marine ecosystems. They help maintain the health of sea grass beds and coral reefs that benefit commercially valuable species such as shrimp, lobster and tuna. Sea turtles are the live representatives of a group of reptiles that have existed on Earth and traveled our seas for the last 100 million years. Turtles have major cultural significance and tourism value. 

     

Threats

Unsucceful attempt by a diver to rescue a Leatherback turtle caught in a net

Sea turtles journey between land and sea and swim thousands of ocean miles during their long lifetimes, exposing them to countless threats. They wait decades until they can reproduce, returning to the same beaches where they were born to lay their eggs, few of which will yield hatchlings that survive their first year of life. Beyond these significant natural challenges, sea turtles face multiple threats caused by humans.

Bycatch

Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of sea turtles are accidentally caught in shrimp trawl nets, on longline hooks and in fishing gillnets every year. They become fisheries bycatch--unintended catch of non-target species. 

Sea turtles need to reach the surface to breathe and therefore many drown once caught. Incidental capture by fishing gear is the greatest threat to most sea turtles, especially endangered loggerheads, greens and leatherbacks. This threat is increasing as fishing activity expands.

Sea turtles continue to be harvested unsustainably both for human consumption and trade of their parts. Turtle meat and eggs are a source of food and income for many people around the world. Some also kill turtles for medicine and religious ceremonies. Tens of thousands of sea turtles are lost this way every year, devastating populations of already endangered greens and hawksbills.
 
Killing of turtles for both domestic and international markets continues as well. While international trade in all sea turtle species and their parts is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), illegal trafficking persists.

Habitat loss

Sea turtles are dependent on beaches for nesting. Uncontrolled coastal development, vehicle traffic on beaches and other human activities have directly destroyed or disturbed sea turtle nesting beaches around the world. Turtle feeding grounds such as coral reefs and sea grass beds are damaged and destroyed by activities onshore, including sedimentation from clearing of land and nutrient run-off from agriculture.

All stages of a sea turtle’s life are affected by environmental conditions such as temperature—even the sex of offspring. Unusually warm temperatures caused by climate change are disrupting the normal ratios, resulting in fewer male hatchlings.

Warmer sea surface temperatures can also lead to the loss of important foraging grounds for sea turtles, while increasingly severe storms and sea level rise can destroy critical nesting beaches and damage nests.

What WWF Is Doing

WWF works around the world to eliminate sea turtle bycatch from fisheries, reduce the unsustainable harvest and illegal trade in marine turtles, and stem the loss of critical sea turtle habitats.

Eliminating Bycatch

WWF aims to reduce turtle bycatch by working with fisheries to switch to more turtle-friendly fishing hooks (“circle” hooks). We advocate for the use of special turtle excluder devices in nets. WWF runs an international competition, known as Smart Gear, to attract creative new ways to solve bycatch problems and to advance the best of those ideas. Winning devices have been designed to minimize the bycatch of turtles on tuna longlines and help turtles avoid gillnets. We track turtle movements using satellites to help prevent future interactions between fisheries and turtles and work with fishermen to help them save turtles caught in fishing gear.

Circle Hook

Addressing Overharvesting and Illegal Trade

WWF works with local communities to reduce turtle harvesting and egg collection. Because  exploitation  of  turtles  is  often  driven  by  a  lack  of  economic  choices, we help develop alternative livelihoods so that local people are no longer dependent on turtle products for income. WWF also supports programs that promote the value of sea turtles. WWF works through TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, to stop the illegal trade of turtle meat and eggs. We also train and equip local rangers to patrol turtle nesting beaches and protect against poaching.

WWF has been supporting a campaign led by TRAFFIC to combat illegal trade from the Coral Triangle and reduce demand in China. Activities include better training for law enforcement officials in both areas and a public awareness campaign in China, targeting areas where turtle trade is the highest. Radio broadcasts and advocacy events spread the message among local fishermen, souvenir shop owners and tourists about the problem of turtle trade.

In the western Solomon Islands, WWF supports local rangers on the beaches throughout turtle nesting and hatching seasons to protect against egg harvesting and hunting. The rangers collect important data and inform their communities about laws to protect turtles.

Protecting Marine Turtle Habitat

WWF works around the world to establish  marine protected  areas, ensuring sea turtles have a safe place to nest, feed and migrate freely.  We encourage governments to strengthen legislation on, and provide funding for, sea turtle protection. WWF supports local turtle conservationists in many parts of the world to monitor and patrol turtle nests. These efforts often lead to ecotourism opportunities and offer alternative livelihoods.

Minimizing Climate Change Impacts

WWF studies how sea turtles are being affected by climate change and helps determine the best ways to reduce their vulnerability to changing environmental conditions. We work around the world with communities to monitor and protect nesting beaches, helping turtles be more resilient to the future impacts of climate change. In the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean we work to raise awareness of the threat of sea level rise on nest sites and the importance of shade for nests.

Satellite telemetry allows researchers to track sea turtles as they swim from place to place. These satellite tags do not harm the turtles in any way and are designed to eventually fall off. The data will tell us where important feeding areas are, help us understand migration patterns, and anticipate where turtles may come in contact with fisheries and their gear. 

Experts

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