The Earth is the only planet suitable for living with the perfect balance it has. A very delicate balance has been established for the continuity and perpetuity of life on the blue planet, which is estimated to be 4.5 billion years old. In the building blocks of this balance, each living thing has been assigned a role and a share. A total of 8.7 million living species identified so far continue their lives in interaction with each other within this framework.
Some produce nutrients that are the source of life, some consume them. Some of them transform the emerging waste and thus complete the cycle and ensure the continuation of life.
Each of the 8.7 million species is needed to maintain this order. However, global problems such as climate change, caused by the rapidly increasing population, overconsumption and urbanization, as well as environmental problems such as air, water and soil pollution, are risking the survival of many species, leading to their extinction.
Sensitive and endangered species are taken under protection in order to prevent these negative effects and to maintain biodiversity. One such creature, sea turtles have a very important role in the ecosystem, such as supporting the food cycle between sea and land and preventing the increase of harmful populations in the seas.
The number of sea turtles, which have eight different species around the world, is declining every day. While sea turtles are hunted for their meat in some regions and for their shells in others, they may also get caught in the nets during shrimp hunting and fishing, or die as a result of millions of tons of plastic waste left in the sea every year. All these can be cited as the main factors of this decline.
The most interesting species of sea turtles, which have eight species worldwide, is the tadpole or common sea turtles known as the loggerhead sea turtle, or Caretta caretta, widely seen in Turkey.
The warm seas
They are estimated to have existed for more than 100 million years, according to scientists. They are named tadpole because of their large heads and strong jaws which allow them to eat other hard, shelled creatures like oysters and sea urchins. They choose seas that are generally warm and shallower than 60 meters as their habitat.
Although their average length is around 1 meter, they can reach up to 2 meters. Likewise, Caretta carettas, which have an average weight of 135 kilograms (298 pounds), can reach a weight of up to half a ton in places.
Unlike other turtles, they cannot pull their head and feet into the shell. Their average lifespan is 70-80 years, while they become reproductive at the age of 35.
They are extensively present in the Mediterranean, along with the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. Generally, North America and the Gulf of Mexico are frequent destinations for Caretta carettas in the Atlantic Ocean.
According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Florida coast is the densest breeding ground in the world, with more than 65,000 nests. In the Indian Ocean, the coast of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula are generally preferred. Oman is the second-largest breeding ground in the world with more than 15,000 nests.
The Greek and Turkish coasts in the Mediterranean are also important breeding grounds. In total, there are an estimated 7,000 nests in this area.
They like warm water. So, they migrate depending on the temperature change in the water. In cool weather, they can stay underwater for up to seven hours. At moments like this, they only surface for a few minutes to breathe.
Sea turtles are omnivorous, eating both plants and animals. Jellyfish, sea cucumbers, oysters, sea urchins, and mosses are their favorite. As a result, they prevent jellyfish overpopulation in their natural habitats.
Moreover, they also contribute to the balance of undersea life. The seas offer us one of the two breaths we take. Generally, they do this with the coral reefs they have. Coral reefs grow slowly and some sponges grow faster than them and multiply and prevent their development in their environment. Sponges, like jellyfish, are among the favorite foods of sea turtles. They consume sponges and prevent overproduction and ensure the protection of corals reefs, a source of oxygen often called the lungs of the sea.
Green sea turtles, which are commonly found in Turkey along with Caretta carettas, also feed on seagrasses. Thus, they mow seagrasses over time and contribute to the self-regeneration of the region more healthily.
Besides, sea turtles play an important role in the food cycle. They consume organic substances during feeding in the open sea and leave them in breeding areas through eggs, thus they enrich the area in nutrients and ensure sea-land nutrient balance. With all these aspects, they have an important regulatory role in the ecosystem.
Sea turtles are among the most interesting creatures on earth. They also have versatile potential in tourism, with their nests, eggs, the way their hatchlings go to the sea and dive together in the sea. With this aspect, they also contribute to the economy of the region where they exist.
Caretta carettas breed between May and August in the Northern Hemisphere, where our country is also located. Female Caretta carettas can go back to where they were born to lay eggs. They can lay 80-120 eggs in a nest. They hatch in groups at night. They determine their direction from the reflections of the moonlight in the sea. While the hatchlings are 2.5 centimeters in length, adults can reach more than 100 centimeters.
The active threats
Even though so many eggs are laid in each nest, only 1% of them can grow healthily. This is because they are faced with many dangers throughout their life cycle. It is on the list of many predators as their eggs contain important organics on the sea bottom.
Reptiles such as snakes, mammals such as raccoons and foxes, and seabirds are major threats to both eggs and hatchlings trying to reach the sea. According to observation studies, about 30% of the eggs are usually lost.
Reaching the sea is not enough, either. The vulnerable hatchlings that reach the sea can fall prey to various crabs and eels.
In addition to these events taking place within the elements of this natural balance, there are also artificial effects caused by human beings. Eating eggs as food is one of these.
Again, besides being hunted for their meat, they are often caught into the nets cast during shrimp hunting and fishing that is carried out within wide borders with the development of navigation systems, and they drown due to lack of oxygen after failing to reach the surface.
The bottom nets, especially used in shrimp hunting, accidentally take many Caretta carettas and cause many of them to die. Some 6,000 Caretta carettas drowned in the Pacific in 2000, according to U.S. official sources.
Often sea turtles die by consuming plastic waste thrown into the sea which they mistake for jellyfish.
Also, factors such as human activities in the areas where hatched nests are located, and artificial light sources, prevent many offspring from reaching the sea, leading to their extinction.
Many steps are being taken to protect sea turtles from extinction worldwide. International unions and organizations are being established. International conventions such as Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, also known as the Bern Convention and Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean, or Barcelona Convention, are drawn up and rules and limits are set. Species protection work is being carried out. Developments are being recorded and monitored. All work, both on land and at sea, continues exponentially.
In the U.S., they were taken under protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) enacted in 1973. Again, these species were included in the red list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), of which Turkey is also a member. With the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), international trade of these species was limited.
To prevent accidental hunting, systems like Turtle Excluder Devices were used to ensure that they are easily freed from nets.
Besides, monitoring studies were expanded to obtain information about their life cycles. Satellite trackings began and care centers were set up for injured turtles.
Land of Caretta carettas
Our country, which is surrounded on three sides by the sea, has more than 8,300 kilometers of coastline. Our world-famous beaches host many local and international tourists as well as many types of sea turtles. One of them is the Tadpole sea turtles, also known as Caretta carettas and the Green sea turtles.
According to studies, more than half of the Caretta carettas in the Mediterranean come to Turkish shores for nesting. This rate goes up to 80%-90% for green sea turtles.
In our country, which is located in the Mediterranean basin and has an important breeding potential for sea turtles, 21 breeding areas such as the world-famous Iztuzu Beach known as the Turtle Beach, Olympos Ruins and Belek, have been identified and taken under protection.
According to the 2019 data of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, there are more than 7,000 nests in these 21 areas on our coasts, of which 4,500 are Caretta caretta nests.
According to Sea Turtles Research Rescue and Rehabilitation Center (DEKAMER) data, about 25% of these nests are located on the Iztuzu Beach.
According to the data contained in the annual reports of DEKAMER in 2019, the number of nests in Dalyan was around 150 in 1989 when the studies began, and this figure fell to just 50 at the beginning of the 1990s. However, with the development of investment and protection activities using camera tracking, security guards etc., it exceeded 600 in 2019 and to 700 today.
The area was also chosen as the best open space in Europe in 2008, as a result of these works.
Sensitivity to the environment in our country was raised only after 1980. During the period of former President Turgut Özal, Dalyan declared the first Special Environmental Protection Area in 1988, including the Iztuzu Beach, so Caretta carettas were able to breed in a safer environment.
I would like to point out that a British national living in Dalyan since 1986, also referred to as Captain June, has spent a great deal of effort in these works.
Besides special Environmental Protection Zones, nest detection activities are carried out in areas identified as the breeding area of sea turtles every year with the support of nongovernmental organizations and universities within the scope of Sea Turtle Monitoring and Protection projects developed under the leadership of the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
Zero Waste Blue Movement
One of the biggest threats to sea turtles is around 8 million tons of plastic waste – the equivalent of dumping a truckload of waste every minute – which is recklessly thrown into the sea every year. This is because these wastes are broken down by waves and the sun. Plastic waste pieces, popularly referred to as nylon, are similar to jellyfish, which are much liked and consumed by turtles, so sea turtles swallow them and many of them die.
A giant step has been taken to allow these endangered species to roam freely in our blue waters. On June 10, 2019, the Zero Waste Blue Movement was launched as part of the Zero Waste Movement. The mentor of this project is first lady Emine Erdoğan, who considers the environment to be a trust.
She has shouldered this project so that both our shores and our seas can be cleaner and bluer, and the fish and children can swim more comfortably in our country. As a result of the first year of the project, more than 65,000 tons of waste have been collected despite the pandemic. This figure corresponds to the equivalent amount of domestic waste generated on an annual basis from a residential area of 150,000 inhabitants.
With the support of many nongovernmental organizations to efforts initiated under the leadership and auspices of the first lady, cleaning activities in sea began. The legal infrastructure for groundbreaking practices in waste management in our country such as charging plastic bags for controlling plastic waste flowing into the sea, recovery participation share and compulsory deposit practices have been developed.
Care and rehabilitation
One of the issues as important as reproductive activities is care and rehabilitation, in fact, even more, important for hatched sea turtles that have a less than 1% chance of becoming an adult.
However, sea turtles that are injured due to hunting activities or get caught in ghost nets, swallowing plastic waste, or being hit by motor vehicles such as boats are taken into care, treated and released back into their natural environment.
One of the units serving in this area is DEKAMER. It has been carrying out these activities since 2009. More than 360 sea turtles have been taken into care since 2009, according to the center's annual report for 2019. Of these, over 200 turtles were treated and released back into their natural habitat.
Another activity area of this center is tracking turtles via satellite. Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning supports these efforts. Such species monitoring programs are aimed at determining the migratory routes of turtles and to evaluate the effects of environmental factors such as climate change.
Thus, we will be able to get information about important threats and regions in the sea. Within the scope of the projects supported by our ministry, chips have been inserted in 21 turtles so far and are monitored via the satellite.
One of the turtles tracked is a Caretta caretta named Tuba, which is well known by the public.
According to the information provided by DEKAMER, Tuba was checked for its strange movements in the Dalyan breeding area and it was found that it was injured by a propeller. After about two months of treatment, it was left in its natural environment in August 2019. However, a chip was inserted into its shell to get information about issues such as how it would move after treatment and its migration routes.
So, the adventure began, we have been watching Tuba for almost a year since August 2019.
It visited Rhodes and Marmaris in the first two weeks. Tuba stayed there for two months and reached Greece in December. Then it started traveling off Malta and spent the entire winter there. It has traveled 6,000 kilometers so far. Easy to say, this means shuttling three times between the westernmost and the easternmost parts of our country.
During the summer, Tuba moved to Italy, and in early July, it moved to the Adriatic. Tuba thus became the first turtle to be tracked by DEKAMER from Turkey to reach the Adriatic. Tuba has reached the Albanian and Montenegrin shores and is back in Italy now.
Tuba is being monitored with technological devices that offer a lot of information, but its chip has a battery, the longer its life, the more we can watch it and get informed.
Tuba, someone is watching you and we wish your chip would never run out of battery. Come back home, to our country, as soon as possible.
You can witness this adventurous journey of Tuba at https://www.dekamer.org.tr/uydu.html
* Deputy Minister at the Republic of Turkey's Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, Chief Climate Change Envoy