The role of coastal communities in sea turtle conservation

sea turtle

Protecting sea turtles: a collaborative effort between scientists and coastal communities

By Santiago Aristizabal

As a passionate environmental conservationist, I’ve have had the opportunity to explore various ecosystems, uncovering awe-inspiring species in their natural habitats. One of those species is sea turtles. These remarkable reptiles have successfully adapted to living nearly 100% of their lives in the ocean, except for the females that journey to the beaches during specific seasons for nesting.

How is it possible that despite being so resilient and having so many adaptations to live in the ocean, they are in danger of disappearing from the world forever?

Sea turtles adaptations to marine life are truly remarkable, with aerodynamic fins and a renal system that enables them to maintain balance in fluctuating salinity levels. Their most distinguishing features are undoubtedly their massive hard shells, which provide crucial protection against predators, and sea turtles ability to survive extended periods without consuming any food.

Sea turtles are in danger of extinction

However, in my passage through the life of conservation not everything is always so nice. After falling in love with all these conservation processes and researching the wonders of the species, it wasn’t long before I was confronted with bad news. Sea turtles are in danger of extinction.

This information shocked me too much. How is it possible that despite being so resilient and having so many adaptations to live in the ocean, they are in danger of disappearing from the world forever? I realized that activities such as fishing, ocean pollution and climate change affect the survival of turtles from birth to adulthood.

Top view of sea turtle in blue sea Jess Loiterton

Conservation strategies

In those years reading all that information motivated me to look for alternatives to help sea turtles and many other species. In that search I have found many organizations dedicated to protecting the oceans, each in different ways.

Some organizations seek to increase sea turtle populations by protecting the nests found on the beaches, they are dedicated to patrolling beaches at night, searching for nesting sea turtles. Focused on reducing human intervention with the nesting areas, determined to increase the probability hatched eggs will survive.

Other organizations seek to protect sea turtles through legal mechanisms, by prohibiting illegal fishing and hunting.

Also, there are groups of people who are dedicated to raising environmental awareness with communities, motivating them to protect these wonderful species in their territories.

Coastal community awareness

I’ve had the opportunity to be part of conservation strategies, and I found the strategy that generates the most impact is the work with coastal communities. The coastal communities have great knowledge of the species through information that has been transmitted from generation to generation in the fishing families, and all this knowledge ends up being of great importance to establish the protection strategies.

It is important to clarify that the most difficult part is the first contact with the communities, because it is not so easy to gain their trust. At this point it is very important not to judge the behavior of the communities, and to understand the realities of each site, because each place has different conditions. But once that trust is established, everything flows more easily with the support of the communities.

In the communities I have been able to work with, I have focused on carrying out awareness-raising activities with the fishermen’s children. It is interesting to see how much knowledge they have about marine life, despite their young age. In addition, it is much easier to carry out these processes with children because they are more open to different ways of thinking. For this same reason, when children understand the importance of turtles in the ecosystem, they begin to identify themselves as turtle protectors, and help spread the conservation message throughout the community.

I have had occasions in which children, on their own initiative, have started to clean the beaches, picking up debris, bottles and plastics that they find along the way in order to help take care of the turtles. These types of attitudes are the ones that make conservation last and achieve great changes. This happens because the message reaches the whole community when it is someone well known who is transmitting it.

Conservation impacts

Recently, we are starting to see the impacts of all the strategies on sea turtle populations around the world. I recently read an article that discussed the state of sea turtle populations, and how they are starting to recover after implementing the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It is important to emphasize that the impacts on this sea turtles are also reflected in the overall health of the ecosystem. This is because turtles are an umbrella species and by conserving and protecting them, many other species are also protected.

It is important to keep in mind that each strategy will have results in different time frames. For example, when talking about the nest protection strategy, the results will be evident after 20 years. This is when the females reach sexual maturity and begin to return to the beaches for nesting, thus completing their life cycle.

Although sea turtles are still in danger of extinction, progress has been made in the conservation processes of these species thanks to the joint work between scientists and communities. Applying all the ancestral knowledge of the communities combined with the scientific knowledge of professionals to establish the best conservation strategies adapted to the reality of each place, and make them sustainable over time.

Title photo: Big wild sea turtle swimming in seawater / Daniel Torobekov

Santiago Aristizabal

Santiago Aristizabal

Veterinarian from the University of Antioquia in Colombia. His passion is work with marine species. He is dedicated to the conservation of endangered species with indigenous communities.


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