Are Sea Turtles Worth Saving?
In a world full of problems and full of species, it’s a question worth asking. Are there good reasons to go to the trouble of saving endangered sea turtles? Read on and see what you think.
Sea turtles demonstrate the ultimate lesson of ecology – that everything is connected.
Sea turtles are part of two vital ecosystems, beaches and marine systems. If sea turtles become extinct, both the marine and beach ecosystems will weaken. And since humans use the ocean as an important source for food and use beaches for many kinds of activities, weakness in these ecosystems would have harmful effects on humans.
Though sea turtles have been living and thriving in the world’s oceans for 150 million years, they are now in danger of extinction largely because of changes brought about by humans. If we alter the oceans and beaches enough to wipe out sea turtles, will those changes make it difficult for us to survive? And if we choose to do what’s necessary to save sea turtles, might we save our own future?
- Beaches and dune systems do not get very many nutrients during the year, so very little vegetation grows on the dunes and no vegetation grows on the beach itself. This is because sand does not hold nutrients very well. Sea turtles use beaches and the lower dunes to nest and lay their eggs. Sea turtles lay around 100 eggs in a nest and lay between 3 and 7 nests during the summer nesting season. Not every nest will hatch, not every egg in a nest will hatch, and not all of the hatchlings in a nest will make it out of the nest. All the unhatched nests, eggs and trapped hatchlings are very good sources of nutrients for the dune vegetation. Even the left-over egg shells from hatched eggs provide nutrients.
- Dune plants use the nutrients from turtle eggs to grow and become stronger. As the dune vegetation grows stronger and healthier, the health of the entire beach/dune ecosystem becomes better. Healthy vegetation and strong root systems hold the sand in the dunes and protect the beach from erosion. As the number of turtles declines, fewer eggs are laid in the beaches, providing less nutrients. If sea turtles went extinct, dune vegetation would lose a major source of nutrients and would not be healthy or strong enough to maintain the dunes, allowing beaches to wash away.
- Sea turtles eat jellyfish, preventing the large “blooms” of jellyfish – including stinging jellyfish – that are increasingly wreaking havoc on fisheries, recreation and other maritime activities throughout the oceans.
- Research has shown that sea turtles often act as keystone species. Sea grass beds grazed by green sea turtles are more productive than those that aren’t. Hawksbill turtles eat sponges, preventing them from out-competing slow-growing corals. Both of these grazing activities maintain species diversity and the natural balance of fragile marine ecosystems. If sea turtles go extinct, it will cause declines in all the species whose survival depends on healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs. That means that many marine species that humans harvest would be lost.
- Sea turtles, and many species that are affected by their presence or absence, are an important attraction for marine tourism, a major source of income for many countries.
These are some of the roles that we know sea turtles play in the essential health of ecosystems. Who knows what other roles we will discover as science reveals more about sea turtles? While humans have the ability to tinker with the “clockwork” of life, we don’t have the ability to know when it’s okay to lose a few of the working parts.
If you disagree, try to take apart a clock and just throw away one of the pieces that doesn’t look that important. Put the clock back together and see if it still works.
Sources: Caribbean Conservation Corporation and Todd Steiner, Sea Turtle Restoration Project.