Sea turtles have swum the seas for a couple hundred million years. Today all seven species are in dire shape, especially in Australia and El Salvador.
There are four man-made culprits that are quickly driving these glorious masterpieces – the last vestige of the dinosaurs – off the planet: Fisheries, petroleum-based plastics, the climate crisis, and persistent organic pollutants.
Fisheries are annihilating everything in the seas. Thirteen million miles of longlines, or enough line to encircle the equator 522 times, with almost 2 billion legal and illegal hooks. In 2000 alone, according to Duke University workers, longlines murdered 200,000 loggerheads and 50,000 leatherback turtles.
Infuriatingly, it is not just the deadly hooks massacring the sea turtles. The conservation group World Animal Protection estimates that each year fisheries disdainfully abandon 646,000 metric tons of nets, which become ghost nets. Not only do those horrid nets suffocate an estimate 308,000 cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) annually, but also many thousands of sea turtles.
Plastics are killing sea life at an unprecedented rate. Each day, America consumes and discards 500 million plastic straws. Many of those straws are winding up in the sea and choking sea life. The oceans are filled with as many as 51 trillion pieces of plastic – that’s 500 times more plastics than stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Sea turtles are eating a record rate of plastics, which block their digestive systems and they perish from septicemia, or blood poisoning. It’s a slow and excruciating death. Refuse to accept a straw!
Thousands of sea turtles recently turned up dead along Australia’s remote shoreline along the Gulf of Carpentaria. Deserted fishing nets the size of football fields wiped-out those sea turtles. In 2016, Aussie marine authorities removed an astounding 29 metric tons of discarded fisheries gear from the Timor and Arafura seas.
Burning subsidized fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment, is responsible for 93-123 percent of Earth’s global warming since 1950. Ninety-three percent of the fossil fuel heat has been stored by the oceans, which have quadrupled in heat since 1997. Warming oceans produce more toxic algal blooms filled with unprecedented levels of domoic acid – a deadly nerve poison. The algal bloom poison along with shellfish saxitoxin are implicated in a mass mortality event that recently claimed as many as 400 sea turtles seven nautical miles off Jiquilisco Bay Biosphere Reserve in El Salvador. Since 2006, saxitoxin killed 500 sea turtles in El Salvador, and four years later, another 100 died from algal bloom poisoning.
Humans treat the ocean like a giant sewer. Earlier this year my colleagues, led by the University of Aberdeen, reported levels of toxic industrial chemicals at the bottom of the Pacific Mariana and Kermadec Trenches. The pollution was 50 times higher in PCBs and flame retardants than the most polluted delta – the Liaohe River system – in China. Frighteningly, necropsies from green turtles found along the Great Barrier Reef revealed hundreds of thousands of man-made chemicals present in the blood serum of dead Queensland turtles.
Ladies and gentlemen what we do to the oceans and all the sea life, we do to ourselves. There’s only one way to heal the oceans. The prescription includes no fisheries activity whatsoever for 50 years and an immediate end to dumping persistent organic pollutants into the sea.
The sea turtles are showing us that we must change quickly before the seas become more toxic and empty. We must not go quietly into this impoverished future!
Dr Reese Halter’s upcoming books are Save Nature Now and Love! Nature.