Earth Day 2019: Dedicated to protecting species like beautiful sea turtles
The first Earth Day took place in spring 1970 when there were no laws to protect the environment. The national event organized by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was a huge success. Over twenty million Americans took to the streets on April 22, 1970, demanding action on environmental pollution. Their efforts led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and landmark environmental laws.
Today, over a billion people in 192 countries participate in Earth Day activities. This year, Earth Day falls on a Monday and the important theme focuses on protecting millions of plant and animal species from a mass extinction event.
The Earth Day Network notes that human activities are causing the largest extinction event since the days of dinosaurs.
“Unfortunately, human beings have irrevocably upset the balance of nature and, as a result, the world is facing the greatest rate of extinction since we lost the dinosaurs more than 60 million years ago,” the Earth Day Network states on its website.
The extinction event is affecting an enormous range of species from insects, lizards, and birds to the big cats, primates, and the life in the sea.
This time, we’ll focus on sea turtles, some of the most ancient animals on the planet. These marine reptiles have existed for over 100 million years, managing to survive the extinction of the dinosaurs. Today, they are facing equally if not more challenging threats to their survival thanks to human activities.
There are seven beautiful species of sea turtles, including the Kemp’s ridley turtle, leatherback turtle, loggerhead turtle, olive ridley turtle, flatback sea turtle, and the green sea turtle. All are under threat due to:
- habitat loss
- plastic pollution
- oil spills
- commercial fishing nets and lines
- collection of eggs
- the killing of adults and juveniles for meat, skin, and shells
- Then we have to factor in climate change, a worldwide threat to every living thing.
The smallest species under threat is the Kemp’s ridley. Adults stay between 70 to 100 pounds with a two-foot carapace length. The adults stay largely within the Gulf of Mexico and are the least numerous of the sea turtles, with somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 nesting females left.
Although these turtles nest more often than other species, two to three times each season, they are critically endangered. Each time they leave the ocean to lay their eggs, the turtles face grave threats from human development and activity but they return to the same place where they were born like clockwork.
— Clearwater Aquarium (@CMAquarium) March 12, 2019
The Aquarium recently received a juvenile Kemp's ridley sea turtle from @CMAquarium. The turtle was found with a fishing hook stuck in its esophagus. The vet team was able to remove the hook and now we are hoping for a speedy recovery and release! 🐢 pic.twitter.com/qc7T81qsiu
— The Florida Aquarium (@floridaaquarium) May 23, 2018
On the other end of the spectrum, the leatherback turtle is the largest sea turtle and can weigh in at a staggering 1,500 pounds. They can measure as much as 10 feet across. It’s the only sea turtle that lacks a hard shell. Instead, it has a tough skin with thousands of tiny bony plates. Despite their enormous size, their beaks are delicate and they eat soft-bodied animals like jellyfish exclusively.
It’s amazing such an enormous creature can subsist almost entirely on jellyfish, which are mostly made up of water. Despite this seemingly nutrient-deficient diet, leatherbacks can stay active in water below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the only reptile to do so. This makes them the most widely distributed sea turtle in the world.
A diet of jellyfish poses risks since plastic pollution can often resemble jellyfish to sea turtles. The other big threat to these giants is commercial fishing.
Picked up #PlasticPollution from two mylar balloons today at @vcrlter. The resemblance to jellyfish was uncanny. Easy to see how wildlife like sea turtles cannot tell the difference. Don't let your balloon go (better yet, avoid single-use plastic altogether)!
Photo credit: NOAA pic.twitter.com/cV9JzOv7t9
— Max Castorani (@MaxCastorani) May 31, 2018
LOOK: A 500-kilogram leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coricea) was accidentally entangled in a fisherman’s net in Balatan town in Camarines Sur province. 📷 Mr. Ryan Cediño, National Stock Assessment Program (NSAP) Enumerator.
— Inquirer (@inquirerdotnet) November 22, 2018
Can you believe that this tiny Leatherback Sea Turtle will grow into a 1,500 pound ocean traveler?! Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtles in the world, and migrate incredible distances of up to 10,000 miles!#OceanFacts
Photo: NOAA Fisheries pic.twitter.com/h2O9ZDT6ws
— The TerraMar Project (@TerraMarProject) January 19, 2019
The diet of sea turtles varies by species, with the beautiful green sea turtle specializing on eating seagrasses and the loggerhead turtle specializing on shelled crustaceans like crabs or mollusks like clams.
Green sea turtles have serrated beaks specially evolved to aid in consumption of #seagrass. Active grazing by #seaturtles keeps seagrass beds healthier and promotes #carbonsequestration. Thanks, sea turtles! #gratitude #thanksgiving Photo: @NOAA pic.twitter.com/kaShZWVB2f
— Upwell Turtles (@UpwellTurtles) November 22, 2018
The value of sea turtles to the ecosystem can’t be calculated. They keep coral reefs and beds of seagrass healthy through foraging and nutrient recycling. Their presence helps maintain a healthy ecosystem for species which humans depend on for food. They also help control the populations of jellyfish. Earth Day notes that sea turtles contribute millions to the tourism industry as people take part in tours to see them and learn about their unique life cycles.
The biggest way we can each help preserve sea turtles and other ocean life is by learning how to help prevent pollution of the ocean. Take part in recycling as much disposable waste as possible. If there is not a recycling program in your area, you may be instrumental in working with local officials to express interest in recycling goals for your town.
We can all support or take part in efforts to clean up the oceans, as well as new innovations like biodegradable plastics. We can all try to reduce the use of plastics and use reusable grocery bags.
For more resources, check out Earth Day’s Oceans Plastic Pollution Quiz and see more ways you can help save species like the gentle giants, the sea turtles.
Lastly, we can all support conservation efforts and speak up to support funding for agencies like NOAA that work to protect sea turtles.
— Ocean Conservancy (@OurOcean) April 22, 2019
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Featured image: Sea turtle via Pixabay