"We are ocean, period. Seventy percent of the world is ocean and eighty percent of global biodiversity is in it. We need to take care of the ocean. No matter where we are, we depend on it."
--Wallace J. Nichols
For at least 150 million years, sea turtles have roamed the Earth's oceans. This makes them at least 858 times older than the first Homo sapiens. Survivors of the mass extinction that wiped dinosaurs out, enduring lengthy travels along the sea and fighting heavy predation that results in survival statistics of about one in a thousand, they have managed to stay around. That is, until now. Out of the seven species of marine turtles in the world, six feature as endangered or critically endangered in the Red List of Threatened Species, a list compiled by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and updated every year with the best available scientific information. Humans bear direct responsibility.
Every stage in a turtle's life is impacted by humans. Eggs are a traditional food believed to increase sexual potency, and are collected from nests in high numbers to satiate consumer demand. Those that survive egg poaching, an illegal activity in most countries, are actively hunted for their meat, skin and shells or captured incidentally by fishing fleets once they reach the adult and sub-adult phase. Trapped in shrimp nets, where they suffocate and drown, or hooked onto long-lines that target tuna, more than 400 thousand sea turtles are captured or injured each year. Adult females, capable of traveling more than 9,000 miles from feeding grounds to their natal beaches for laying eggs, are safe from off-shore fishing but threatened by coastal development. Construction along coastlines hinders nest making and can also affect hatchlings on their journey to sea. Often mistaking lights on coastal infrastructure for the bright horizon, they end up waddling in the wrong direction.
Characteristics of a sea turtle's life history add to the already tenuous scenario. Sea turtles grow slowly, live very long and take a long time to reach reproductive maturity. This combination is a drawback for population recovery. It takes anywhere from 15 to 50 years for a new batch of turtles to be able to reproduce, so turtles hunted today, might take a human lifetime to be replaced. Meanwhile, they are still captured at rates that exceed replacement possibilities. So what hope is left? Policy for sea turtle conservation includes regulations for fishing nets to include TEDs (turtle exclusion devices), designation of world-wide protected beach areas for nesting and heavy fines for illegal egg poaching. But without proper community education and monitoring, compliance continues to be poor and declines in sea turtle numbers persist.
Here is where researchers like Dr. Wallace J. Nichols are needed. Nichols has turned a childhood fascination with sea turtles, formed during his upbringing on the Chesapeake Bay, into a career advocating for sea turtles. Dr. Nichols is Senior Scientist with Sea Turtles at the Ocean Conservancy, president of the International Sea Turtle Society, researcher for the California Academy of Sciences, and member of the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group. As if this trail of qualifications were not enough, he is also a collaborator for numerous organizations including Oceana, actively engaged in ocean advocacy, and Blue Ocean Institute, which combines scientific and artistic approaches to conservation. Involved in media as well, he has authored a children's book as well as several articles and reports. He's been featured on radio shows, produced TV documentaries and was a noted expert in Leonardo Di Caprio's eco-documentary The 11th Hour.
A mix between a biologist, social scientist, activist, conservationist, writer, speaker and producer, this multitalented New Yorker has dedicated fifteen years of his life to a single mission: sea turtle conservation. And his efforts have seen fruit. Working with marine turtles and local communities in Baja, California and Mexico, where almost all species have representation, the program he leads has resulted in positive...