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Conservation Success Story; Turtle and Turtle Exclusion Devices

Updated: May 9, 2023

By Angela Velazquez

Photo Credit M Swiet Productions / Getty Image

Sea turtles are marine reptiles with streamlined bodies and large flippers. These elegant and wise creatures are well-adapted to life in the ocean. They inhabit tropical and subtropical ocean waters around the world. Out of the seven prominent sea turtle species, six are found in U.S waters; these include the Green turtle (Chelonia mydas), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), Loggerhead (Caretta caretta), Olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), and Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii). All of which were designated as endangered species in 1978 and were listed and protected under the Endangered Species Act. A species is classified as endangered when it's considered to be facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild.

Even though they spend most of their lives exploring the ocean, adult females lay their eggs on land. They migrate thousands of miles every single year, rotating between feeding grounds and nesting beaches.

Because sea turtles migrate long distances, they face significant threats across their range. Major threats include becoming bycatch in commercial and recreational fisheries, being entangled in marine debris, pollution, climate change, and the degradation of nesting and foraging habitats due to coastal development.

However, the leading cause of sea turtle mortalities is specifically trawl fisheries. Trawl fishing deploys enormous nets to be dragged across the natural seafloor, capturing almost everything in their path and destroying vulnerable habitats and marine life along the way. Of all commercial fisheries conducted in the U.S, shrimp trawling is the most damaging for sea turtle populations. Turtles that are captured in trawls may drown, since they must resurface to breathe. Trawling is the largest root cause of mortality for juvenile marine turtles. Their age and size allow them to be most vulnerable. The deaths of juveniles are most detrimental to the stability of sea turtle populations.

In order to combat and reduce harm to sea turtles, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regulates commercial fishers from using specific fishing gear such as trawls and long-lines which are infamously known to catch sea turtles as bycatch. To further prevent deaths, NOAA Fisheries, environmental, and fishing organizations developed turtle excluder devices (TEDs). A TED is a framework of bars with an opening either on the bottom or the top of the shrimp net that acts like a trap door. When sea turtles are accidently captured in the net, they are diverted by the bars and can effectively escape through the TED flap and safely swim away. With the invention and utilization of TEDs, sea turtle deaths have been reduced exponentially.

Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries

From 1987 and onward, the widespread use of TEDs has been required by federal regulations implemented under the Endangered Species Act. A study conducted by the Center for Biological Diversity reported that 75 percent of sea turtles increased their population size after gaining protection under the Endangered Species Act. The median population increase after protection from the Act, was 980 percent for sea turtles! Overall, sea turtles have experienced a dramatic increase in their population numbers, providing them with freedom and stability on their journey towards full recovery.

An important highlight of the study consisted of the North Atlantic green sea turtles. The green sea turtle species have seen an increase of nests dispersed throughout Florida beaches, from 464 nests in 1989 to 39,000 in 2017. An overall statewide population increased from 62 known nests to 53,102 in 2017. The green sea turtles are one of the species that has benefitted from the protections of nesting beaches and the measures to reduce deaths by fishing gear.

From there forward, the green sea turtle population has grown exponentially. We can now find green sea turtles in the San Gabriel River in Long Beach! The conservation efforts placed in 1987 allowed turtles to expand their range and broaden their habitat. We may ask, what makes the San Gabriel River so special? Well, the Haynes Power Plant in Long Beach is the responsible party. It discharges constant warm-water outflow into the river creating the perfect temperature for green sea turtles to reside in. The temperate water also provides a great habitat for eelgrass and other plants that turtles like to feed on.

All six sea turtle species have been positively impacted by the goals of the Endangered Species Act. The crucial laws created in the effort of protecting sea turtles are certainly worth celebrating. Although the future is unpredictable, conservation biologists around the world are cautiously optimistic about the future of sea turtles! With that being said, it is important to keep supporting the conservation efforts in place and to spread awareness for the recovery of these beautiful and wise creatures.

A great way to get involved in our local community is by volunteering at the Socal Sea Turtles Organization. Socal Sea Turtles is dedicated to ensuring that every person on the water knows how to protect and conserve our local sea turtles through sighting and stranding reporting, along with safe fishing and boating practices. They accomplish these goals by outreaching at public events, designing educational material, and partnering with government agencies and local nonprofit organizations.

Photo Credits: Angela Velazquez

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