Reducing the Impacts of Climate Change on Sea Turtles

Issue 1, 2010 Articles:

* Reducing the Impacts of Climate Change on Sea Turtles
* Double Trouble: Climate Change and Ocean Acidification

Next Issue
Previous Issue

Reducing the Impacts of Climate Change on Sea Turtles

By David Godfrey

Despite their evolutionary success over 100 million years, sea turtles are significantly threatened by climate change and ocean acidification, which are two of the most daunting environmental challenges of our time. Through the burning of fossil fuels, billions of tons of carbon dioxide added to our atmosphere and the oceans since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution are creating profound environmental changes. Today, as more than six billion people on Earth strive for better lives, the links between energy use, resource consumption, climate change and sea turtle survival are becoming clearer.

CCC’s work over the last 50 years has included the collection of standardized data sets that provide scientists and resource managers with valuable baseline information about sea turtle populations at some of the world’s most important nesting and foraging sites. CCC’s research is producing reliable long-term information related to nesting patterns, sand temperature, nesting and emergence success and sex ratios. This information is being utilized by CCC scientists and others to implement rational strategies for the long-term protection and recovery of sea turtle populations.

Because the sex of developing sea turtle embryos is dictated by the temperature at which they incubate, some conservationists are concerned that unnaturally warm temperatures on nesting beaches are producing inappropriately high numbers of female turtles (which tend to be produced when incubation temperatures are hotter). Some likewise are convinced that this is harmful to sea turtle populations, and they have developed what they think are appropriate solutions to the problem. Thus, it has become the tactic of a few turtle protection groups to begin manipulating the beach environment to produce more shade, while moving eggs to hatcheries where incubation temperatures can be regulated to produce what is thought to be a more desirable ratio of male to female hatchlings. For many turtle advocates, foundations and philanthropists eager to contribute to programs that address climate change, this seemingly simple solution is almost too good to resist.

CCC would like to offer a word of caution. This is a situation that we believe calls for an adherence to the “precautionary principle.” Specifically, we’d like to urge other groups not to pursue an interventionist-strategy at this time. We all are concerned about the potential effects of global warming on sea turtle sex ratios, but we know of no scientific studies that support intervention and manipulation of incubation temperatures of sea turtle nests in the context of global warming. Money would be better invested in first determining the natural sex ratios in sea turtles around the world, rather than jumping immediately to manipulate the system with introduced shade on the beach, sprinkling regimes, hatcheries, etc. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to raise the money necessary to fund basic science.

Based on the data that are available, skewed sex ratios seem to be the norm, rather than the exception, as indicated by decades of study on loggerheads in Florida. It’s likely that the picture is actually very complex—populations encompassing a large geographic span may have differing sex ratios in different areas that may be complementary. Also, even if pivotal temperatures and sex ratios can be established for the various populations of each species, the likelihood that manipulation of the nests would inadvertently affect other aspects of the biology of the turtles is very high. Given the absence of a scientific consensus that sex ratios are being unnaturally skewed by warming—and that a skew toward more female hatchlings would actually be “bad” for recovering turtle populations, we urge great caution before attempting to physically manipulate sex ratios at nesting beaches.

Ultimately, the robustness and resiliency of sea turtle populations will be their best protection from the adverse impacts of climate change. CCC is using its expertise on coastal development issues to promote beach management strategies that are helping communities prepare for and adapt to sea level rise. As a leading advocate for coastal policy reforms, CCC is bringing about resource management policies that better protect sea turtles and their habitats from the impacts of climate change. In a parallel fashion, our focus on reducing ongoing threats to turtles, such as capture in fisheries, marine pollution and exploitation, ensures that populations are as healthy as possible and better able to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

On the national level, CCC is collaborating with other conservation groups to support climate change legislation that addresses the wildlife, plants and natural habitats most affected by our changing climate. We also support state and federal adaptation plans for species and their habitats at risk from climate change. For example, in Florida, CCC participated as a member of Governor Charlie Crist’s “Climate Action Team.” Through this and other advisory panels, we are playing a key role in the development of policies aimed at reducing and adapting to climate change in this state. In addition, as a guiding member of the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition, CCC co-authored the report, “Preparing for a Sea Change in Florida.” This lays out strategies to help the state confront climate change through ecologically and economically sound policies that protect critical habitats and allow the state to adapt to rising sea levels and extreme weather. These strategies, which have been distributed widely and are also available for download on CCC’s website, could serve as a model for other coastal states.

While CCC continues to address the impacts of climate change and encourage policies that help us and sea turtles adapt, we must also work to reduce the root causes of the problem. As a major consumer of the world’s energy resources, the United States has an obligation to help stem climate change, and we have the ingenuity and financial incentive to address this problem. Unfortunately, the sense of urgency, leadership and requisite grassroots support needed to make major, bold changes in energy use and consumption are presently lacking here and in much of the world. We all must speak out more urgently on this issue and take personal action in order to bring about real changes—for the sake of both sea turtles and people.