Sea Turtles, amazing creatures that have lived on the planet for hundreds of millions of years. To be more precise, we should should say ‘amazing endangered creatures‘.
May 23rd is the World Turtle Day, and a good chance to look at the problematic issue of Sea Turtles Conservation Tourism, or Sea Turtle Based Tourism. That is, the sea turtle hatcheries that act as a tourism business and promote themselves as an important ecotourism and conservation player in protecting the endangered sea turtle species.
In short, there is no clear evidence that hatcheries, have any positive influence on sea turtle conservation, and more chances it causes harm than do good.
Sea turtles have many natural threats, and hatcheries have been established to save eggs from human consumption, mostly for food. Some argue that in some countries, such as in Sri Lanka, turtle eggs would be totally consumed in the absence of eggs being saved by hatcheries. These hatcheries depends on visitors for paying their bills and salaries (Tisdel and Wilson, 2003).
The turtle hatcheries do not eliminate the consumption of sea turtle eggs, but change their usage from a food commodity to a tourism commodity. As the eggs are often bought from locals, locals still have incentives to collect eggs, to sell to hatcheries rather than in the food market.
In their natural surrounding, after incubating for around 80 days, hatchlings dig through the sand to the surface, usually at night, when darkness increases the chance of escaping predation and damage from extreme sand surface temperatures is reduced. Hatchlings enter the ocean by navigating toward the brighter horizon created by the reflection of the moon and starlight off the water’s surface. This is where lights from beach activities and tourism disturb the natural lifecycle of sea turtles.
Unlike “real life”, in turtle hatcheries, hatchlings are retained in tanks for three days or more before being released to the sea. However, hatchlings become weak if they are retained in tanks for too long. Then, they are more vulnerable to predators, thus reducing their chances of survival in the sea.
Another important issue is the imprinting mechanism of young sea turtles and their dispersal patterns. Holding them for a period of time during this critical stage may disrupt imprinting and dispersal, perhaps lessening the turtle’s survival and/or its ability to return successfully to its natal beach to lay eggs of its own someday (Hewavisenthi, 1990).
In addition, at some hatchery facilities hatchlings are crowded into small tanks where they have little or no space to swim about. There, they tend to nip at each other, causing injuries that become infected later on. Water in some of these tanks is not changed regularly, resulting in an unhygienic environment for the hatchlings (Hewavisenthi, 1990).
Allowing hatchlings to reach the sea immediately after emergence, is the best way to increase their chances of survival and really conserve them. Any period of captivity should be strongly discouraged. But hatcheries are dependent on tourist revenues (entrance fees, donations and sale of souvenirs) for their operations, that means they need to have “cute hatchlings” to be held by visitors (Tisdel and Wilson, 2003).
It is must be said that the people working who work in hatcheries, think that what they are doing is good and effective, especially by preventing consumption of eggs.
Indeed, this issue should be addressed, regulated by national authorities, and understood by tourists.
Are there responsible ways of turtle based tourism? Of course! Here are a few:
- Sri Lanka Ecotourism criticizes the hatcheries in the south-western part of Sri Lanka, and offer unique watching tours where you don’t interfere with the natural cycle.
- You can also get involved with ARCHELON, the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece.
- Another excellent example in the mediterranean is Israel’s Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. The center is devoted to the protection and stabilization of Israel’s sea turtle population. The Center focuses on (1) protection of nesting sites and nests along Israel’s coast; (2) breeding program for green sea turtles; (3) treatment of injured or sick sea turtles so that they may return home to the sea after their rehabilitation; (4) education programs to raise awareness in the local population as well as among fishermen, the navy, and sea enthusiasts; and (5) research and satellite tracking of sea turtles in the Mediterranean.
- On the east coast of Africa, Watamu Turtle Watch and Local Ocean Trust are doing great work in Kenya.
- If interested in the Carribeans, there is WIDECAST – Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network that publishes guides and handbooks for responsible turtle based tourism practices.
Read more about sea turtles species on WWF website