Green sea turtles may stop basking on beaches around the world within a century due to rising sea temperatures, a new study suggests.
Naturalists as early as Darwin observed beach basking in green turtles (Chelonia mydas). It helps the threatened animals regulate their body temperatures and may help their digestion and immune systems.
After analysing six years of turtle surveys and 24 years of satellite data, researchers from Duke University, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and the University of Ioannina in Greece found the turtles bask less often when sea surface temperatures rise.
If global warming continues, they may stop basking altogether by 2102. Or even earlier in some places like Hawaii where you might stop seeing turtles sunning themselves on the beach in less than 25 years.
The cut-off point for Green Turtles is 23 °C at the sea surface. Warmer than this and they don’t need to get out to get warm.
Not all green turtles bask on land. Though the turtles are found in tropical and subtropical oceans around the world, beach basking has only been observed in Hawaii, the Galapagos Islands and Australia. Sea surface temperatures at these sites have been observed to be warming at three times the global average rate.
It is not yet clear whether populations that currently bask on land during cooler months will adapt to warming sea temperatures and begin to bask exclusively in the water, as do some other populations around the world.
The loss of sharks could contribute to the destruction of one of the planet’s most under-appreciated sources of carbon storage — seagrasses, according to FIU researchers. Not that sharks eat the seagrass, they don’t, but they do eat the turtles which feed in the seagrass meadows. Add this to the problems of pollution, mooring and destruction of seagrass, means this vital habitat – and the sharks – need help.
“Seagrasses around the world are under considerable threat — from pollution to dredging and changes in water quality,” said Mike Heithaus, marine biology researcher who specialises in sharks. “Now, it appears that the loss of sharks, especially tiger sharks, can cause collapses of seagrass ecosystems as well.”
As global efforts are under way to conserve turtles, shark populations are suffering from overfishing, which is creating an imbalance of the two animals in the world’s oceans. The focus of the research is about sustaining the delicate food chain balance. In this case, sharks, turtles and seagrasses must all be preserved in concert. To not do so, could trigger an ecosystem collapse.
Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) in what was once a seagrass meadow
“Historical overfishing of sea turtles so drastically reduced the numbers of turtles in the ocean by the 16th century that impacts on seagrass meadows were rarely recognized,” said James Fourqurean, co-author of the study. “It’s only now that conservation efforts are on their way to restoring sea turtle populations that we are now experiencing the consequences of how overfishing large sharks is impacting seagrass.”
The concept is simple. Sharks feed on turtles. Turtles eat seagrass. Healthy tiger shark populations keep turtle populations in check so they do not devour entire meadows before the seagrasses are able to replenish themselves. Seagrass meadows, acre per acre, are among the world’s most valuable ecosystems, providing nurseries for species that people rely on, protecting water quality and slowing rates of coastal erosion. Seagrass absorbs carbon dioxide and outputs oxygen at twice the daily rate of tropical forests, which helps to mitigate climate change. With seagrass meadows disappearing at an annual rate of about 1.5 per cent, 299 million tonnes of carbon are being released back into the environment each year, according to research published in Nature Geoscience (DOI: 10.1038/ngeo1477).
While most seagrass losses to date have been attributed to poor coastal zone management, the food chain variable has been largely ignored.
The researchers examined the impacts of green sea turtles on seagrass communities in Bermuda, Australia, Indonesia and India, all locations with large green sea turtle populations. The findings were published this week in Frontiers in Marine Science. In each of the sites, data suggests the seagrass meadows are being disrupted by heavy grazing where turtle populations are increasing and shark populations are down. But that doesn’t mean turtles are villains. In most of the world, they are threatened with extinction and still need conservation.
“We’ve seen similar issues on land – the loss of wolves leads to population explosions of deer that then damage ecosystems,” Heithaus said. “We need efforts to protect and rebuild turtle populations in most of the world, but we also need to be working to ensure that populations of their predators are intact so the turtles don’t eat themselves out of house and home.”
Over 42,000 turtles are legally killed each year, 80% of them endangered green turtles (Chelonia mydas), a study suggests.
British scientists investigated which countries allowed turtles to be killed, and how many of each species died, the Diversity and Distributions Journal reported.
Ten countries account for more than 90% of the catch, with Papua New Guinea, Nicaragua and Australia taking almost three-quarters between them. Legal take of turtles is comparable to estimates of by-catch.
Widespread commercial catch of turtles has contributed significantly to their decline.
The first place to protect turtles was Bermuda, as early as 1620. Although 42,000 seems an enormous number now, in the 60s Mexico alone was catching over 380,000 a year. The IUCN Red List of threatened species has listed marine turtles since 1982, giving them protection from the 198 countries now signed up to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The IUCN writes that “Perhaps the most detrimental human threats to green turtles are the intentional harvests of eggs and adults from nesting beaches and juveniles and adults from foraging grounds.“. Other threats include bycatch in marine fisheries, habitat degradation at nesting beaches and feeding areas, and disease.
As well as 37,339 green turtles, an estimated 3456 hawksbill turtles, 1051 loggerhead turtles, 263 olive ridley and 62 leatherback turtles are captured.