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Field Notes: The State of the World's Sea Turtles with Roderic Mast

By Amanda Townsel

We are pleased to share with you a recording of our most recent Field Notes webinar, 'The State of the World’s Sea Turtles' with Oceanic Society President & CEO, Roderic Mast, hosted by Wayne Sentman, Oceanic Society's Director of Conservation Travel Programs.

Below you can find more information about the SWOT Program, a written version of the excellent Q&A that followed Rod's presentatin, as well as information about travel opportunities and ways to stay engaged with ocean conservation during this time.

If you are not already on our mailing list, please be sure to sign up here, and/or follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to make sure you receive the announcements for future Field Notes webinars.

The SWOT Program

Founded in 2003, SWOT is a partnership among Oceanic Society, the IUCN-SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group, Duke University's OBIS-SEAMAP, and a growing international network of institutions and individuals. This powerful group—the SWOT Team—works to compile and publish global sea turtle data that support conservation and management efforts at the international, national, and local scales. These data reside within the SWOT database, which is continually updated and made publicly available. It is widely used by researchers, conservationists, students and teachers, funding agencies, and government officials.

Each year SWOT publishes a new volume of The State of the World’s Sea Turtles (SWOT) Report, an award-winning magazine designed to channel the SWOT Team's collective power by highlighting its success stories, innovations, and new findings. SWOT Report is distributed back to the SWOT Team members who helped create it, free of charge, for use in their own local outreach campaigns in communities where sea turtles occur.

Webinar Questions & Answers

Questions have been organized beneath subheadings for convenience. Written responses are included below. For questions that were answered live, we have provided the timecode to watch the answer in the webinar recording.

Sea Turtle Status Questions

Q: How many species of turtles are currently endangered?

A: Six of the seven sea turtle species are categorized as threatened with extinction by the IUCN.

Q: What is the primary reason for the decline of the leatherbacks in the Pacific?

A: A combination of egg harvesting and fisheries bycatch led to the decline of leatherbacks in the Pacific. The East Pacific and West Pacific populations are both listed as Critically Endangered

Q: Any update on western Pacific leatherback status?

A: Answered live at 45:02. The most recent sources of information are NOAA-NMFS’s 2020 status review of the leatherback turtle and the 2013 IUCN Red List Assessment of the western Pacific Ocean population of leatherback turtles.

Q: How is the distribution of sea turtles population along the Indian Coast?

A: Sea turtles, primarily olive ridleys, are sparsely distributed throughout the Indian coast, with a major nesting aggregation (arribada) of olive ridley turtles in the state of Orissa on the east coast. Four species also nest in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, including an important nesting colony of leatherback turtles. See this resource for detailed information: https://www.seaturtlesofindia.org/about/distribution/

Q: Leatherbacks have not been reported since 1986 in the Isla Tiburon area of Gulf of California. What are the probabilities of their return? There are also winter hibernating green turtles there in the Infiernillo Channel - first I’ve heard of this.

A: Leatherback turtle populations are severely depleted in the eastern Pacific Ocean (they have declined by more than 97% in three generations), and in spite of decades of conservation efforts, still show no clear signs of recovery. Green turtles are found feeding throughout much of the Gulf of California. We are not familiar with the population found in Infiernillo Channel, but there is a well-known foraging area just across the gulf in Bahia de los Angeles that has been the subject of long-term research efforts. And there is a very successful project on the coast of Michoacan (the beaches of Colola and Maruata) that has seen a good recovery of nesting green turtles.

Q: Which turtles can be found in the Red SEA?

A: Answered live at 53:11. Five sea turtle species are known to occur in the waters of the Red Sea: green, hawksbill turtle, loggerhead, olive ridley, and leatherback. Only green and hawksbill turtles are known to nest in the Red Sea.

Q: Can you please explain the papilloma tumors that were often found on green sea turtles around Hawai’i? After 36 years of swimming on the northwest coast of Maui, I see far less turtles with tumors than in the past and wonder what is happening. thank you!

A: Fibropapillomatisis (FP) is a tumor-forming disease associated with the herpes virus that is prevalent / epidemic in some sea turtle populations and can lead to stranding or death. The Hawaiian Archipelago was the world’s hotspot for FP in sea turtles, where the disease reached epidemic proportions among Hawaiian green turtles. The FP outbreak began there in the late 1980s and peaked in the mid-1990s, but it has been in steady decline ever since. Although FP has significant effects on sea turtles, the Hawaiian green turtle population has been steadily growing in spite of any impacts from FP, thanks to a range of consistent conservation efforts. According to NOAA’s 2015 status review of the green turtle, there are more than 4,000 green turtles nesting annually in the Hawaiian Archipelago, compared with just 37 nesting in 1973, and the population is growing at an annual rate of 5.4%. Research has also shown that some cases of FP, including very severe ones, can reverse over time.

Sea Turtle Biology and Natural History Questions

Q: Are there relative turtles from the prehistoric cretaceous sea area (North America plains) alive in our current oceans?

A: Answered live at 40:36

Q: Do we know why sea turtles migrate such great distances?

A: Answered live at 42:07

Q: Are there any other subspecies, besides the Black Turtle?

A: There are no recognized sea turtle subspecies. Black turtles are not recognized as a subspecies, but rather a subpopulation. There are somewhere around 60 subpopulations among the 7 species, but no taxonomically described and valid subspecies.

Q: What are their natural predators?

A: As eggs, hatchlings, and young, turtles have many natural predators including birds, fish, crabs, raccoons, and even ants. As adults their predators are few, and include sharks, jaguars in certain areas, crocodiles in certain areas, and killer whales in certain areas.

Q: Why is the Black Turtle rarely mentioned or recognized?

A: Answered live at 46:08.

Q: I believe Hawaiian green sea turtles haul out every day - are they the only ones?

A: Answered live at 53:46.

Q: I have two questions. How common is leucism in sea turtles? What are the possible reasons for hybridism in sea turtles?

A: We are not aware of any comprehensive data on the prevalence of leucism in sea turtles. Here is an article we recently published re: hybridization in sea turtles which has some answers to your question. https://www.seaturtlestatus.org/articles/how-rare-are-hybrids.

Q: Do sea turtles migrate up freshwater rivers?

A: Not usually, but it has happened.

Q: Do sea turtles ever nest on beaches other than the one where they hatched?

A: Yes. Mother sea turtles return to the beach / region from which they were born to lay their eggs, but they don’t always return to the exact same beach. Sea turtles also sometimes “break the rules” and nest in unexpected places.

Q: Does the hawksbill have the hardest shell? If so, is it because they eat sponges that are made of tiny spicules of glass? Also, is this why they are preferred to make jewelry.

A: Hawksbill shell is preferred to make jewelry because of its beautiful coloration / pattern. The shell is comprised of thick plates of keratin (like a human fingernail), and whatever glass consumed with their sponge diet passes through the animal undigested.

Q: Is it true that the mom goes to the same beach as they were born to give her babies?

A: Mother sea turtles do indeed return to the beach / region from which they were born to lay their eggs. They don’t always return to the exact same beach, but they do often.

SWOT Program Questions

Q: How does SWOT reach the relevant policy makers to ensure conservation at a global level? Thanks

A: Answered live at 51:46.

Q: How do you target the turtles to make the maps?

A: The sea turtle data in SWOT’s maps are provided voluntarily by hundreds of sea turtle researchers worldwide who walk the beaches to count turtles and nests, use drones and other aerial survey methods, and use satellite and GPS tags to track migrations, among other techniques.

Q: I was wondering if Rod’s amazing image of the green sea turtle shell variations was available as an image (digital or print)? Thank you

A: You can find that graphic here: https://www.seaturtlestatus.org/articles/2011/the-most-valuable-reptile-in-the-world-the-green-turtle

Q: I have a special interest and concern for Sea Turtles. What groups should I be supporting?

A: Our State of the World’s Sea Turtles Program supports sea turtle research and conservation efforts globally. You can learn more and provide a donation at https://www.seaturtlestatus.org/donate . Thank you!

Q: What’s next for Oceanic Society (State of the World’s Sea Turtles Program) and sea turtle conservation?

A: Answered live at 1:02:56. More information about the Marine Turtle Specialist Group (MTSG) Burning Issues can be found here: https://www.iucn-mtsg.org/burning-issues

Sea Turtle Conservation Questions

Q: In your opinion is there any case for head starting hatchling turtles? I am particularly interested in what you think of tourism operators doing this.

A: Head starting (raising hatchling turtles in captivity until they reach a certain size before releasing them into the wild), is a controversial practice that we do not recommend. Sea turtle hatchlings are well-programmed (and adequately fueled) to swim off the beach after hatching until they reach developmental and feeding areas where they can safely feed and grow. If they are not allowed to perform these natural behaviors, there is a risk that when they are later released they will not have the energy or orientation to make it to their developmentally appropriate habitat. Moreover, sea turtles are thought to learn the geomagnetic signature of the beach from which they are born (through imprinting) in order to successfully navigate back as adults some 20-30 years later (read more). Evidence suggests that they learn the geomagnetic signature of their natal beach as hatchling turtles, and it is unknown whether head starting may disrupt this learning process. Finally, there is little concrete evidence to suggest that head starting is effective in increasing survival rates of sea turtles, and there are many risks/challenges associated with keeping sea turtles in captivity. For all of those reasons, we do not recommend the practice of head starting.

Q: How endangered themselves are some of the unique sea turtle diets, for example jellyfish for leatherbacks, from the point of climate change/water temperature, or other causes?

A: Answered live at 47:54.

Q: How can we address climate change in the context of conserving sea turtles?

A: Answered live at 49:44

Q: Are TEDs (Turtle Excluder Devices) used worldwide to help prevent turtles getting caught?

A: Answered live at 43:29. There is also a good summary of Turtle Excluder Device (TED) regulations here.

Q: Roderic mentioned that “conservation is a social science with biological underpinnings.” I am wondering if you could speak more to this, if there are good examples of how social scientists are helping sea turtle conservation scientists, or vice versa?

A: Answered live at 59:18. Learn more about our Blue Habits Program and join the community at www.BlueHabits.org

Q: What is the best way to prevent sea turtle bycatch?

A: Answered live at 55:40.

Q: If global warming leads to more and more female turtles being born, how can any of the 7 species of sea turtles survive?

A: This is a complex topic. Global warming does indeed pose a threat to turtles, but sea turtles are adaptable creatures who have survived past climatic shifts (they have been around for 100+ million years). We recently published a summary of information on this topic at https://www.seaturtlestatus.org/articles/threat-series-climate-change.

Q: What are the chances of leatherbacks being brought back to the beaches of Terengganu, Malaysia where we saw them in 1977?

A: Sadly, the leatherback population that used to nest in Terengganu is extinct, and we are not aware of any efforts to re-establish a colony of nesting leatherbacks there. Their extinction may have been due to changes in beach vegetation and other natural conditions that once kept nesting areas cool, but today beach temperatures can reach lethal levels for incubating eggs.

Q: Are hawksbill turtles nesting in the Caribbean at the same rate as say 5-10 years ago?

A: We are not aware of any analysis of hawksbill nesting trends in the Caribbean in the last few years. The most recent such assessment was led by NOAA and published in 2013 and showed that status varies widely by location, but overall their status is roughly similar to what it was in the recent past.

Q: What do you think is the current frontier in the conservation of sea turtles?

A: Human behavior change at all scales. In just the past 15 years, we have significantly advanced our understanding of the global movements of all sea turtles (see the maps in SWOT Report), and we have also advanced our understanding of threats to their survival. Soon we will be able to tell which populations are under the most severe threat, and for what reasons; armed with this knowledge (that is improving every day) we can commence to turn things around case-by-case. Meanwhile we must do all we can to assure healthy oceans for all the creatures that depend on them (including humans). This means doing whatever it takes in consort with governments, corporations and citizens at all scales, and it will require new techniques for social engagement and moving people from motivation to action - see what oceanic society is doing to tackle this critical issue through our Blue Habits work at www.bluehabits.org.

Q: What strategies are needed to address the threat of local populations of green turtles from harvesting eggs by local people?

A: There are an array of strategies running from enactment of laws (where they do not exist), enforcement of laws (where they do exist), and most importantly the engagement of locals in building community-based efforts centered around beach protection. There are numerous examples of all of these strategies to be found in SWOT Report.

Q: How can I conduct an artificial lighting survey along a coastal area?

A: This manual published by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission is a great resource on this topic.

Q: Does the noise from ships and boats distract sea turtles and is it possible that the noise contributes to where they are found more likely?

A: We are unaware of studies on this, but turtles do have a natural tendency to avoid environmental stressors like beaches with lighting, humans, or other disturbances, so it is conceivable that turtles would also act to avoid areas of noise or boat activity.

Other Questions

Q: What is a pyrosome?

A: Pyrosomes are free-floating colonial tunicates that live in the open ocean (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrosome)

Q: Who is the person behind Mr. Leatherback?

A: Answered live at 1:05:50

Travel Opportunities

Expedition programs are available beginning in early 2021, see our most recent COVID travel update here. Private departures for groups of 4 or more can be arranged. For those ready to get back out there, here is a list of Spring departures that still have space available: Baja Whales, Baja Whale Sharks & Snorkeling, Belize Snorkeling, and Panama Wildlife & Snorkeling.

Staying Engaged from Home

For more ways to stay engaged virtually, considering joining Oceanic Society’s new membership program! For as little as $5/month, you will join this growing community of ocean-lovers and receive exclusive updates about our work (see a sample of our June member’s only newsletter, The Tide, here). Members provide needed, consistent support that makes a real difference to our work!


Amanda Townsel is an Oceanic Society communications strategist, copywriter, and community coordinator. Amanda earned a Bachelor’s in Psychology from the University of San Diego and a Master’s in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She is an avid traveler with a professional career that includes diving, marine ecotourism research, and strategic communications for conservation organizations.


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