Sea turtles have inhabited the Earth’s oceans for over 100 million years, surviving multiple mass extinctions that wiped out the dinosaurs and Dead Turtle other species. Today, however, these ancient marine reptiles face numerous anthropogenic threats that have caused significant population declines in recent decades. One of the most visible signs of these threats is the disturbing but important phenomenon of dead sea turtles washing up on beaches around the world.
Seeing the carcass of one of these majestic creatures can be upsetting, but it provides an opportunity to reflect on the many hazards they face in the modern age. By understanding the most common causes of sea turtle mortality, we can better appreciate the conservation efforts needed to protect vulnerable populations.
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Leading Causes of Sea Turtle Deaths
The three main anthropogenic threats to sea turtles include fisheries bycatch, marine pollution, and habitat destruction. Commercial fishing operations accidentally catch turtles in their nets or on lines; this bycatch accounts for tens of thousands of turtle deaths every year. Pollution, especially plastic, also kills turtles when they mistake debris for food or get entangled. Lastly, human disruption of nesting beaches and marine ecosystems harms turtle reproduction and survival.
Other natural causes of mortality include cold stunning, red tide algal blooms, boat strikes, and predation. Cold stunning occurs when turtles are exposed to prolonged cold water temperatures, causing hypothermia. Red tides are algae proliferations that produce toxins harmful or fatal to marine life. Boat strikes from large vessels can injure or kill turtles near the surface. Predators like sharks occasionally attack hatchlings and adults.
Why Dead Turtles Wash Ashore
Sea turtle carcasses that wash up onto beaches typically died at sea days or weeks prior. Decomposition gases make them buoyant, eventually carrying them to shore. Depending on currents, winds, and geographic factors, they can drift long distances before making landfall. Other times, fishing boats or cleanup crews deposit dead turtles found at sea directly onto beaches.
Dead turtles provide researchers with opportunities to necropsy bodies and collect data on causes of death, diet, genetics, and other insights. Once examined, most washed up remains are either buried onshore or returned to the sea. Leaving heavy carcasses in public areas can attract scavengers and raise sanitary concerns. Regular beach patrols watch for new carcasses to identify and document.
Protecting Sea Turtles from Extinction
All species of sea turtles are classified as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered by the IUCN. Leatherbacks and hawksbills in particular face extinction in the coming decades if threats are not adequately addressed. Many nations now enforce stricter fishing regulations to reduce bycatch, while beach tourism operations work to minimize disruption of nesting grounds.
Removing marine plastic pollution, reducing boat traffic near turtle habitats, and maintaining water quality will also benefit populations. Some conservation groups work to actively monitor and protect nests from predators and other disturbances. While dedicated rescue and rehabilitation centers aid sick and injured turtles. Indeed, the sight of a deceased turtle is disheartening, but it also represents an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to protecting these iconic ocean wanderers.
Dead sea turtles washing up on the world’s coastlines offer a sobering reminder of the immense human-caused threats these endangered species face in the modern world. By understanding the common causes of mortality, from fisheries bycatch to plastic pollution, we can direct conservation efforts to where they are most needed. While the sight of even one dead turtle is upsetting, ultimately these losses highlight the importance of protecting habitats, reducing bycatch, and mitigating climate change for the survival of sea turtles worldwide. Though challenges remain, dedicated rescue, research, and public education efforts provide hope that sea turtles might continue thriving for the next 100 million years.
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Q: What are the main threats causing sea turtle deaths?
A: The leading anthropogenic threats are fisheries bycatch, marine pollution (especially plastic), and habitat destruction that disrupts nesting and feeding grounds. Other causes include cold stunning, red tides, boat strikes, and predation.
Q: How do dead turtles end up on beaches?
A: Most wash up days or weeks after dying at sea, once decomposition gases make their bodies buoyant. Currents and winds eventually deposit them along shorelines. Some are also purposefully brought to beaches after being found deceased offshore.
Q: What do scientists learn from studying washed up turtles?
A: Necropsies of dead turtles provide data on causes of mortality, diet, genetics, toxins, and other health insights that can inform conservation efforts.
Q: What can be done to help protect sea turtle populations?
A: Key conservation measures include reducing fisheries bycatch via improved techniques and regulations, eliminating plastic pollution, protecting nesting beaches and feeding areas, rescuing sick turtles, and educating the public.
Q: Are sea turtle species at risk of extinction?
A: Yes, all species are classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered due to population declines from human activities. Leatherbacks and hawksbills in particular face a real risk of extinction in the coming decades.