Oceans are tough environments for sea turtles. As quickly as hatchlings scurry to sea, they face myriad natural and manmade hazards
some lethal. Over the course of their lifetimes, sea turtles will travel through and ingest polluted, pathogenic, and increasingly acidic waters. As a result of climate change
, sea levels are expected to rise, ocean currents may shift, and food webs could become disrupted.
Some sea turtles will narrowly escape capture or entanglement in trawl lines and fishing nets. Many others will not. And when it comes time to nest, female sea turtles may emerge from the ocean to find that if erosion hasn't downsized their beach habitats, modern waterfront development has. Of all the human-induced dangers sea turtles face, however, none are more direct than hunting and trade.
The Secret Ingredient
Sea turtle consumption dates back millennia to a time when sea turtles abounded. Coastal communities rely on sea turtles as protein sources. Other societies serve sea turtle dishes as delicacies. Sea turtle meat is used in some religious ceremonies, and their bones, skin, and shells are used to provide non-food commodities, such as oil, leather, jewelry, and ornaments.
Over-harvesting of sea turtles, however, has pushed them to the brink of extinction. The Endangered green turtle (Chelonia mydas
), for instance, is the most widespread species but nesting females have declined as much as a 67 percent annually over the last three generations, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In the early 20th century, green turtles were hunted as if unlimited and exploited for their gelatinous body fat called calipee the main ingredient in the popular European dish, green turtle soup.
Critically Endangered hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), which have declined as much as 80 percent in recent generations, are coveted for their ornate shells. These are fashioned into jewelry, ornaments, hand mirrors, and other products, known across Asia as bekko.
Even sea turtle eggs are prized and illegally collected. Vulnerable and often unprotected, they are scooped from nesting beaches and sold on the black market as medicines. In his blog reports from the 26th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Conservation and Biology in Greece, Conservation International (CI) Vice President Roderic B. Mast head of CI's Sea Turtle Flagship Program describes Indonesia's tradition of prescribing sea turtle eggs.
"A common household prescription for oncoming sickness is raw sea turtle eggs (which, on the black market, can cost many times more than chicken eggs)," Mast writes. But according to recent research, the opposite appears to be true.
"Sea turtle eggs do not only not possess any special medical qualities, but they can actually be detrimental to human health," says Mast. "According to what [scientists] have found, sea turtle eggs have very high levels of cholesterol, little to no nutritional value, and often levels of toxins such as cadmium and mercury greater than those considered safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration."
Halting the Trade
Because six of the seven sea turtle species are Endangered or Critically Endangered, their international trade is prohibited, but consumption and trafficking of sea turtle parts persist. Conservationists are working for tougher laws and stricter enforcement. Social marketing and awareness campaigns may help unravel cultural myths about sea turtle properties, and on an individual basis, consumers play a powerful role in disarming poachers and protecting sea turtles. Without renewed effort to hold poachers and hunters accountable and enforce sea turtle trade regulations, the seas will be quickly and irreversibly emptied of these timeless creatures.