Why are Sea Turtles Important to the Environment?

Sea Turtles Importance to the Environment

Sea turtles have existed for over 100 million years, making them true ancients of the oceans. These gentle giants play a vital role in maintaining balance in marine ecosystems.

However, due to human activities, all seven species of sea turtle are currently under threat. Understanding why sea turtles are important can help motivate conservation efforts to ensure these creatures thrive for millions more years.

1. Keystone Species

Sea turtles are considered a keystone species. This means their presence is crucial for maintaining biodiversity in their environments. For example, green sea turtles help preserve seagrass beds by grazing on the faster-growing grasses. This allows the slower-growing species to remain, leading to higher seagrass diversity.

Hawksbill sea turtles similarly help maintain coral reefs through their diet of sponges. By selectively eating the faster growing sponges, they create space for slower-growing coral species. Overall, the feeding and nesting behaviours of sea turtles greatly influence the health of coastal marine ecosystems.

2. Nutrient Transporters

During their migrations spanning hundreds or thousands of miles, sea turtles transport vital nutrients between nearshore and offshore environments.

For example, green sea turtles that feed in shallow seagrass beds offshore return to beaches to lay their eggs. Their eggshells then release nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen into the sand. Baby sea turtles that hatch on beaches also imprint on their natal region.

When mature, they return to feed in the same coastal waters where their sand-filled bellies once contained vital nutrients. This transport enriches both coastal and offshore ecosystems.

3. Balancers of the Food Chain

As juveniles and adults, sea turtles feed on a wide array of marine creatures like jellyfish, sponges, sea grasses, algae, crabs, mollusks, and fish. This helps regulate populations at various levels of the food chain. For example, leatherback sea turtles prey heavily on jellyfish.

In one study, scientists estimated a single leatherback can eat over 50 cubic meters of jellyfish in a year! This predation pressure prevents jellyfish blooms from growing out of control. Meanwhile, sea turtle eggs provide a vital food source to predators like crabs, birds, and raccoons on nesting beaches. Overall, sea turtles help balance marine and coastal food webs through every stage of life.

baby Sea Turtles

4. Carbon Absorbers

Scientists have discovered that the mighty leatherback turtle absorbs vast amounts of carbon from the oceans. When leatherbacks dive over half a mile deep into cold waters, their heat-exchange system relies on oils and fats to stay warm.

The production of these oils and fats leads leatherbacks to absorb significant levels of the ocean’s dissolved organic carbon (DOC). Researchers estimate that the remaining Pacific leatherback population alone removes at least 110,000 metric tons of carbon each year .

This natural carbon absorption could provide an important buffer against climate change driven by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. All sea turtle species likely play some role in global carbon cycles through similar metabolic processes.

5. Coastal Stabilizers

Female sea turtles use their rear flippers to dig deep nests in which they lay over 100 eggs at a time. All this digging serves the unintended purpose of aerating sand, facilitating water drainage, and improving beach sand quality and consistency.

Sea turtle nesting activity also redistributes vital nutrients in beach sands. Their eggs and hatchlings that don’t survive provide food for coastal predators and fertilizer for dune vegetation.

All these nesting impacts help stabilize vulnerable sandy beaches against erosion from storms, floods, and rising sea levels. Less resilient beaches without sea turtle nesting are far more prone to detrimental erosion.

6. Economic Engines

Aside from their clear ecological importance, sea turtles also provide tremendous economic value through recreational eco-tourism. In Costa Rica alone, over 150,000 tourists went on supervised turtle nesting tours in 2017.

These visitors brought around $7.6 million to local economies. Many coastal communities near major nesting beaches earn most of their annual income from tourists hoping to experience sea turtles nesting.

Expanding sustainable tourism centred on sea turtle nesting grounds could greatly benefit coastal residents across the world who often live in poverty. However, profit-seeking tourism activities like excessive turtle egg harvesting continue to threaten vulnerable sea turtle populations in many regions.

7. Cultural Icons

Indigenous groups have intertwined their cultures with sea turtles for millennia through art, folklore, cuisine, and spiritual rituals. The Seri people of Mexico’s Gulf of California, for example, tell legends of sea turtles guiding their first ancestors to land.

Tribes in Borneo see giant leatherback turtles as mystical deities connected to the spirit world. People across Malaysia and Indonesia host ceremonial turtle egg harvests rooted in ancient tradition.

Efforts to conserve cherished species like sea turtles inherently help protect these valuable cultural heritage sites and practices for future generations. However, modernization continues to erode such ancestral connections to nature across the globe.

8. Hope for the Future

Despite facing an uncertain future, there are reasons to remain hopeful sea turtle populations can rebound through dedicated conservation efforts. Most hawksbill sea turtle populations in the Atlantic, for example, have been rising over the past few decades thanks to protections of their nesting beaches and coastal feeding grounds.

Leatherbacks in the Atlantic and populations of green and loggerhead sea turtles have also stabilized or grown slightly in recent years after facing potential extinction. However, the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and leatherbacks in the Pacific continue to decline.

Maintaining recovery momentum for sea turtles worldwide requires sustained community education, policy change, habitat protections, and responsible ecotourism focused on these iconic marine reptiles. With some Species over 100 million years in age, sea turtles can outlive humanity’s impact if balance is restored soon to the oceans they depend on and we depend on them to maintain.

In summary, all species of sea turtle play an outsized role in balancing marine ecosystems and offering hope for combating climate change. Yet human activities like overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, unsustainable harvest of turtle eggs, and unrestrained coastal development continue threatening the future of these ancient mariners.

Only through conscious conservation efforts can we ensure sea turtles thrive for millions more years, continuing their reign as true monarchs of the seas.