What’s a sea turtle?
Sea turtles are marine reptiles characterized by a streamlined carapace, long flippers and a non-retractile neck. Like all reptiles, they have lungs (so they have to surface to breath) and lay eggs on land. Considered by many as living dinosaurs, sea turtles appeared on Earth more than 100 million years ago and have been swimming in our oceans since. They have remained practically unchanged since they first appeared; however, only 7 out of the 100 turtle species that have been described from fossil records still survive. Sea turtles have a long life-span but their slow growth, delayed age at maturity and low reproduction rate make them extremely vulnerable to every kind of exploitation. In the past century, sea turtle populations declined sharply all around the world mainly because of unsustainable fishing, for consumption and leather, but also because of incidental capture in fishing gears, irresponsible coastal development and marine pollution.
Turtles of the Red Sea
Four species of turtles can be found in the Egyptian Red Sea: the green (Chelonia mydas) and the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles that nest and feed on the coast; the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), called the gentle giant by some, that is rarely seen nowadays and the olive-ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), the smallest of the turtle species and which prefers to stay far from the coast and, like the leatherback, is only rarely seen. A fifth species, the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), known for its big head, can usually be spotted in the Gulf of Aden but rarely reaches the Egyptian Red Sea. At present, the International Union for nature conservation lists them as critically endangered (leatherback and hawksbill turtles), endangered (green and loggerhead turtles) and vulnerable (olive-ridley turtle).
In the Red Sea, the main threats to sea turtles come from irresponsible coastal development that destroys nesting beaches and feeding grounds such as sea-grass beds and coral reefs; artificial lighting on main nesting beaches that disorients both nesting turtles and hatchlings; garbage and plastic bags which could be ingested by mistake by turtles and will provoke a slow and painful death; pollution in the water that is often associated with diseases like the fibropapilloma tumor; irresponsible anchoring that destroys both sea-grass beds and coral reefs; high speed boats and jet-skis that can seriously wound sea turtles and cause their death; incidental fishing in particular in industrial trawlers and purse seines.
Sea turtles play an essential role in keeping the Red Sea healthy and full of life. Green turtles, also known as “sea cows”, maintain healthy seagrass beds which host spawning fish, their juveniles and a great number of other invertebrates like mollusks and crustaceans that are at the bottom of the food chain. Hawksbill turtles feed on corals and sponges and they help keeping a balance between these two populations. This balance has proven to be critical for healthy coral reefs. So sea turtle conservation is not just about turtles, but also about protecting all the habitats they use and that human beings enjoy as well, like the coral reefs. A healthy sea turtle population depends on us and how we use the resources we share with these animals.
Research overview and goals
At present virtually no data is available on sea turtles at their feeding grounds in the Red Sea. However, this information is fundamental to implement a proper management plan for the conservation of these wonderful animals. Thus, the overall goal of this project is to characterize both green and hawksbill turtle populations inhabiting the Southern Egyptian coast of the Red Sea, focusing on in-water behavior, feeding ecology, reproductive biology and causes of mortality to come out with a clear applicable plan to conserve marine turtles, their nesting and feeding grounds, as well as to reduce the mortality causes.
Results will include:
1) Assessment of the status of marine turtle populations, demarking nesting beaches and feeding grounds;
2) Quantification of level of human impact due to recreational activities, coastal development, fisheries and pollution;
3) Reduction in the mortality causes in marine turtle populations;
4) Increased public awareness and the participation of the local community on turtle conservation processes.
For further information on this project, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Red Sea Turtle Report 2011
Results of HEPCA's scientific work on sea turtles in 2011