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The role of what we eat on turtle conservation

by Natalie Hummel 18 Jul 2012
The role of what we eat on turtle conservation

Archie Carr; Credit: © Tara Green

Situated along Florida's east coast, lies the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge - a 20 mile barrier island, comprised of undisturbed beaches, expensive high rise condos, luxury houses and bustling strip malls. A playground for surfers, sunbathers, and fishermen the refuge becomes a quiet and desolate nesting ground for hundreds and thousands of endangered sea turtles during the warm summer months. In fact, this little known refuge is considered the most significant area for green turtle nesting in North America and the most significant area for loggerhead sea turtles nesting in the Western Hemisphere.

Established in 1991, the unique habit was named for marine biologist and conservationist Archie Carr, a long term advocate for sea turtles. Its success is made possible through effective voluntary efforts, community engagement, collaborative partnerships, and regulatory actions at the State and Federal level. Archie Carr refuge exemplifies how man and endangered species can exist side by side.

The dedicated field staff comprised of volunteers, graduate students, and non-governmental organizations provide visitors with a unique opportunity to track nests, tag turtles (transmitters in some cases) and observe fledgling hatchlings make their way to the vast ocean. Equipped with low impact ATV, GPS, and cell phones, field staff actively roam the beaches searching for loggerhead, green, or leatherback species. Once located, a turtle's size, gender, species and location is shared so visitors can observe these majestic creatures in a natural environment. Continues below..

Turtle Species Concerned:

Green Turtle

Green Turtle Status: Endangered/Threatened - Distribution: Texas to Massachusetts - Primary Prey: Seagrass and algae; Credit: © Shutterstock

Hawksbill Turtle

Hawksbill Turtle Status: Endangered - Distribution: Texas to Florida - Primary Prey: Sponges; Credit: © Shutterstock

Kemp's Ridley Turtle

Kemp's Ridley Status: Endangered - Distribution: Texas to Massachusetts - Primary Prey: Crab; Credit: © Shutterstock

Leatherback Turtle

Leatherback Status: Endangered - Distribution: Texas to Maine - Primary Prey: Jellyfish; Credit: © Shutterstock

Loggerhead Turtle

Loggerhead Status: Threatened - Distribution: Texas to Maine - Primary Prey: Crustaceans and mollusks; Credit: © Shutterstock

The beach become a hands on learning environment, where visitors learn of sea turtle ancestry, biology, and how environmental factor such as climate change, loss of habitat and fishing negatively impact survival rates. Observing an adult loggerhead rise from the jet black ocean, with only the full moon to guide her to a slightly elevated sand dune is a memory hard to forget. The fact that this majestic creature has survived over 100 million years and is the closest thing to a living dinosaur is simply astonishing.

Sea turtles live 20-50 years at sea, before returning to the beach where they hatched. They use innate magnetic clues to guide them along ocean currents. Advances in scientific research reveal that sea turtles journey over 10,000 miles, migrating from one continent to the next. The loggerhead, I observed that hot summer evening may have migrated from as far away as Africa.

Local ordinances in the counties surrounding the refuge require home owners and other establishments to shut off outside lights and use drapes to keep artificial light to a minimum. Standard street lights have been replaced with low ground lights on the side of the roads - illuminated enough to see but not disturb nesting sea turtles. The community supports and thrives on the logo "Sea Turtles Dig the Dark!"

Although the United States government protects sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act(1972), it wasn't until 2004 that changes made to fishing gear and fishing methods significantly reduced sea turtle mortality. Fishing gear and methods such as longlines, trawls, gillnets and other types of gear catch sea turtles unintentionally, as bycatch. According to the World Wildlife By Catch Manager, "Thousands of sea turtles die every year because they are hooked by tuna fishing and those that use long lines." (see graph reference below)

Funded by NOAA, the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research and the University of Florida, conducted a study that found replacing traditional "J"-style hook baited with squid with large circle hooks (G hooks) baited with mackerel significantly reduced serious injury to sea turtles.

Circle or C-hooks versus traditional J-hooks for tuna longliners

Circle or C-hooks versus traditional J-hooks for tuna longliners; Credit: © WWF

The new "circle" hooks or C-hooks are much less likely to be swallowed by turtles than traditional J-shaped hooks, which cause suffocation or internal bleeding when swallowed. In fact the study revealed that use of the circle hooks reduced loggerhead catch by as much as 80 percent. (See Carl Safina)

NOAA Fisheries now requires all U.S. longline fisheries in both the Atlantic and Pacific to use circle hooks. In addition, all boats must carry turtle hoisting, hook removal gear and educate and train crews.

Sea turtles lives reflect the depths and mysteries of the ocean world - their survival is critical to the health of our oceans and environment. It is paramount that we are aware and active in conserving these ancient and magnificent creatures.

Marine turtle bycatch rates (per thousand hooks) from a sample of TBS long-line sets in the Eastern Pacific Ocean

Marine turtle bycatch rates (per thousand hooks) from a sample of TBS long-line sets in the Eastern Pacific Ocean; Credit: © WWF

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