Seven species of marine turtles are generally recognized worldwide, and six of these species are found in and around the Caribbean: the Leatherback, Green (pictured in the background), Loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley, Olive ridley and Hawksbill. Unfortunately, all sea turtles are considered Endangered or Critically Endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), except for the Olive ridley, which is listed as Vulnerable. Hawksbills are currently listed as Critically Endangered, the most imperiled designation, meaning that global populations are believed to have declined by at least 80% in the last three generations. Due to multiple threats, the huge flotillas of sea turtles that, according to European explorers, once traversed the Caribbean waters centuries ago, are no more.
Climate change poses a significant threat to sea turtles. Warming sea temperatures leads to coral bleaching and disease outbreaks which stress turtles in their foraging grounds. Warming is also partly responsible for the unprecedented overgrowth of Sargassum seaweed beds, including at Jumby Bay, which hampers nesting and prevents hatchlings from safely reaching the sea. Nesting beaches are being eroded by more frequent and intense storms and flooding from both sea level rise and increased temperatures. In addition, since sea turtles' sex determination is dependent on the temperature of the nest, male to female sex ratios would likely become skewed by climate change. For further information on climate-related changes and ocean ecosystems, visit NOAA's climate site.
Historically, hawksbills have been harvested for their beautiful and highly valued carapace (shell). The "tortoiseshell" used for jewelry and trinkets is not tortoise-derived at all. Rather, it comes from hawksbills. International trade in tortoiseshell is now banned and many governments have passed legislation against its sale, as hawksbills are protected under Appendix 1 of
CITES (the Convention of the International Trade of Endangered Species). Hawksbills are also hunted for
meat and eggs for human consumption. Additional threats include habitat degradation at the reefs
where they feed and the beaches where they nest as well as unintended capture in fishing gear.
Legislation on sea turtle protection varies throughout the Caribbean. Some countries, like
Barbados and Cuba, have ended all marine turtle harvest. Cuba’s moratorium was particularly
positive news for sea turtles, as some 500 turtles were legally harvested there annually. Other
nations, including Antigua and Barbuda and the Commonwealth of Dominica, permit harvest
of some size classes during certain times of the year. Long distance migrations between foraging
and breeding grounds mean that international cooperation and complementary legislation are essential
to the survival and recovery of the regions turtle stocks.
Although hawksbills are considered critically endangered and still face numerous threats, there are encouraging signs that populations can recover. While the nesting population varies from year to year, Jumby Bay's hawksbill colony has more than doubled since the 1980s, and similar trends have been reported in Barbados, Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Despite such promising returns, however, global and regional stocks remain depleted and require continued conservation efforts.
Fortunately, there are ways that you can help:
Reduce your carbon footprint.
Turn off beachfront lighting during nesting season and install turtle safe light fixtures.
Don't disturb a nest site.
Never buy products made from sea turtle parts.
Pick up any rubbish when you visit the beach.
Consider making a donation to support marine turtle research and conservation.
If you are watching a nesting turtle:
Follow all instructions given by the research staff.
Limit noise (e.g., use quiet voices) and movement to minimize disturbance to the turtle.
Lights can disorient adult and hatchlings, so do not use flashlights until the turtle is laying her eggs or as instructed by staff.
Give a turtle adequate space before she begins laying her eggs and after she has completed laying When a turtle is in the ‘nesting trance’ and focused on egg-laying, she may be approached and viewed more closely. Project staff will notify you when it’s safe to approach.
Flash photography may disorient or temporarily blind a turtle. Only take photographs while the turtle is depositing her eggs, and then only from behind.
Please do not leave litter at the beach, as both adults and hatchlings may become trapped or entangled in rubbish.
On behalf of the sea turtle community, we thank you for your commitment to marine conservation!