June 16 is World Sea Turtle Day! Join us in the journey to protect these important, fascinating marine reptiles.
Sea turtles have traveled the world’s oceans since the time of dinosaurs, filling a vital role of maintaining balance in marine ecosystems. However, in the last 200 years human activities have tipped the scales against their survival, and nearly all sea turtle species are classified as either threatened or endangered.
Many Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) member facilities are doing important work to protect sea turtles through fieldwork, rehabilitation, and education and outreach programs. We celebrate this work regularly because it is contributing to the recovery we are starting to see in several sea turtle populations. Today, we’d like to tell you how AZA aquariums and zoos are increasing our commitment to sea turtle conservation by focusing on two imperiled species. The Kemp’s ridley and the Eastern Pacific Leatherback are the focus of a new AZA Saving Animals from Extinction (SAFE) program. The overall goal of the AZA Sea Turtle SAFE Program is to make significant contributions to the conservation of sea turtles by utilizing the collective resources of the AZA community to secure sustainable populations.
Kemp’s ridleys, the smallest of the sea turtle species, reaching weights of only 100 pounds, are listed globally as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and endangered by the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). This species has a life cycle that makes it a commonly encountered sea turtle in U.S. waters, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast. The Kemp’s ridley population has been heavily impacted by commercial and recreational fisheries and egg harvest, nearly causing its disappearance in the 1980s. Over the next two decades, binational conservation and nest protection efforts in Mexico and the U.S. began paying off with steady population growth. However, in 2010 the nesting population exhibited a serious decline and in subsequent years has been extremely variable. Attempting to understand why the Kemp’s ridley population’s growth has been disrupted is an ongoing effort and the reason this species was chosen as an AZA SAFE conservation target.
On the opposite side of the scale from Kemp’s ridleys are leatherbacks, the largest species of sea turtle, reaching weights of more than 2,000 pounds! The leatherback is the oldest sea turtle species, having been swimming the oceans for more than 150 million years. Leatherbacks are the widest ranging of all sea turtle species and are found globally. The Eastern Pacific leatherback subpopulation is genetically and geographically distinct, spanning ocean areas from Mexico to Central and South America. The population has declined by over 95% in the last three decades and is listed by the IUCN and ESA as critically endangered. This decline is largely due to interactions with commercial fisheries and egg consumption in certain areas. Because of its critically endangered status, the Eastern Pacific leatherback was chosen as an AZA SAFE conservation target.
This World Sea Turtle Day, celebrate that your aquarium or zoo is extending their reach to protect sea turtles on a global scale. Share the journey with us, a journey to not only protect the sea turtles in our own backyards, but those that are a little farther away, in the greatest peril and in need of extra love and support. You’ll hear more about this journey in the coming months so stick with us! In the meantime, you can help ALL sea turtles by taking the following actions:
- Reduce your carbon footprint. Climate change poses a serious threat to all sea turtle species. Take our Climate Friendly Challenge to learn more.
- When buying seafood, ask for local and regional. Most seafood sold in the U.S. comes from imported sources and often, sea turtles are a major bycatch. Check out our sustainable seafood and fisheries program, Good Catch.
- Reduce your use of single-use plastic; these items travel by wind and water, often making their way into the ocean and are ingested by sea turtles and their prey. Learn more about single-use plastic.
- During nesting and hatching season, keep bright lights off the beach. Dark, healthy beaches encourage nesting and ensure hatchlings make their way to the sea. Discover other ways to help protect sea turtles.
- Support your local aquarium or zoo that is working hard to protect sea turtles! It is costly to do so, and we can’t do it without your help. Learn more about our Sea Turtle Care Center™.