Protecting marine turtles and their habitat

Turtle troubles

The current nesting populations of both species are a tiny remnant of the past population which first colonised the Mediterranean over 10,000 years ago.  Recent estimates suggest that there are only 600 adult female Greens and 6000 adult female Loggerheads in the entire sea.  No accurate historical survey data exists but records of turtle catches in the early part of the 20th century  (for example 30,00 turtles caught off the coast of Palestine in the twenty years preceding World War Two) suggest that  both populations were once vast.

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Turtles were often captured after laying their eggs. The eggs were also harvested!

The initial dramatic population drop was noticed in the 1950’s and 1960’s and was largely attributable to the over exploitation of turtles as a food source.  In the latter part of the 19th century and for the first 6 decades of the 20th century thousands of live turtles were exported to the UK and Western Europe in order to be made into turtle soup.   Turtles were frequently captured when mating and when nesting on beaches. This was regarded as a high class food particularly suited to banquets and celebration events.  A parallel can be drawn with Sharks Fin soup and some Asian cultures.

The extent of the problem became apparent in the second half of the 20th century and many, although not all, Mediterranean countries took steps to outlaw the trade in turtles and their eggs.  Increasing environmental awareness in Europe also reduced the market for them.

Unfortunately the decline of the market for turtle products did not arrest the decline of the species.  The current issues are:

Development.

A few of the 400 rubbish sacks collected from Curium

A few of the 400 rubbish sacks collected from Curium

The second half of the 20th century saw a boom in beachfront developments as the tourist market forsun and sand holidays grew rapidly.  Many nesting beaches such as those at Agia Napa were lost to property developers.  Further development is an ever present threat  particularly to the vital Akamas beaches.  Extraction of sand from nesting beaches  for building materials is also an issue.  Loggerhead turtles will only nest on or near the beach where they were born (their ‘natal’  beach).   Green turtles will only nest on their natal beach.   If the natal beach no longer exists  because of development or for some other reason an entire colony will be lost – it will not relocate nesting activities to a new site.   It is therefore vital that we maintain our nesting beaches in Episkopi in order to avoid the loss of the local turtle population.

Predators. Originally man was the main predator and in comparison to him any damage inflicted by nature was largely irrelevant.  Unfortunately, low population levels now mean that this is no longer the case.  The main predator in Cyprus is the fox.   A survey on beaches east of Polis discovered that 80% of unprotected nests found had been destroyed by a fox.  Ghost crabs can also cause damage by burrowing into a nest and by catching hatchlings in the surf zone.  We protect our nests from foxes and dogs by covering the egg chamber with a simple aluminium cage which unfortunately people sometimes move!

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Fishing . The introduction of new fishing methods  ( long lining and large scale trawling in particular) has also proved to be highly perilous for turtles.   Such methods  involve high levels of bycatch which includes many turtles.   Turtle exclusion devices are not mandatory in all countries and their efficacy in respect of the nets used in the Mediterranean is not proven.  Long lines catch many thousands of Loggerhead turtles every year.   Although frequently boarded alive many turtles die of the injuries incurred.   We regularly find such bodies washed ashore along our coastline.

Turtle entangled in fishing net

Turtle entangled in fishing net

Traditional fishing methods used in Cyprus such as bottom set nets  also involve bycatch.   The impact of this has increased because of the now much smaller base population.  Nets which are left for long periods will attract Loggerheads to their contents.  They can then become entangled and may drown if the net is not lifted soon afterwards.  Inexperienced turtles of both species may also become ensnared on their way to and from the nesting beaches.   Some turtles even when captured alive will be killed by the fisherman who may blame the turtle for damaging the nets or stealing fish.  We try to address these problems via education of the local fishermen and also by assisting law enforcement officers in targeting their policing of the industry.  Despite this however, several deaths in 2008 could be attributed to illegal net placement and deliberate injury of entangled turtles.

This boat illegally netted off the entire length of Tunnel Beach

This boat illegally netted off the entire length of Tunnel Beach

Tourism. Tourism causes problems for turtles in a variety of ways.  Sunbeds and parasols on the beach compact the sand, as do foot traffic and the use of vehicles.  This can make it difficult for the nesting female to dig; it can also damage a nest once dug.  Vehicle tracks can cause major obstacles for hatchlings heading for the sea and hasten beach erosion.  Litter can also be an obstacle to both  a nesting mother and  to a hatchling.  It may also be mistaken for food and cause entanglement in the sea.  Lights from restaurants and hotels and beach parties can deter females from nesting and can divert hatchlings from the sea.  Watersports associated with tourism can also scare away or injure turtles in mating and nesting areas as well as polluting the surrounding water.    Every year we find evidence that turtles have been disturbed when trying to nest.  If the mother is unable to nest she will dump her eggs at sea and an entire generation will be lost!

Egg chamber abandoned due to disturbance

Egg chamber abandoned due to disturbance

This car left deep tracks along the entire beach.

This car left deep tracks along the entire beach.