Sea Turtles in Cabo Verde

Sea turtles have been roaming the Earth for over 150 million years. During this time seven different species evolved separately and became what we know today as sea or marine turtles. They have played, and still play, an important role in our oceans, maintaining different marine ecosystems healthy and in balance. However, during the last 100 years sea turtles are facing different anthropogenic threats that are jeopardising their survival. The Red List of Threatened Species from the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) includes 6 of the 7 species of sea turtles. The status of the other species, the Flatback turtle, is unknown.

In Cabo Verde, five different species of sea turtles have been observed: Leatherbacks, Greens, Loggerheads, Hawksbills and Olive Ridley. From those, the loggerhead is the only species nesting regularly. The archipelago supports one of the world’s largest nesting aggregations of loggerhead sea turtles, and the only major nesting area for loggerhead turtles along the entire eastern Atlantic coast. This is fact is more impressive given the broad distribution of this species around the globe.

An average adult Loggerhead turtle in Cabo Verde:

Although in 2015 the global status for the Loggerhead sea turtles was downgraded from endangered to vulnerable, the North East Atlantic subpopulation (Cabo Verde) was left as endangered. The IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group listed in 2011 this subpopulation as one of the eleven most threatened populations of sea turtles in the world. Given the high philopatry of female sea turtles (fidelity to their breeding site) and the extremely slow dispersion to different nesting sites, Cabo Verde is essential for the reproduction of loggerhead turtles. 

In Cabo Verde the consumption of sea turtle meat is a long-standing tradition, as is the consumption of eggs on some islands and the hunting of males for aphrodisiacs. In 1987 the hunting of sea turtles was banned during the nesting season in Cabo Verde; in 2002 it was banned during the whole year; and in 2005, possession, hunting, consumption and exploitation of sea turtles and their eggs became explicitly prohibited by law. In 2018 the Government, with the support of all political groups, is expected to approve a new law that will criminalise all these ilegal activities, and will settle the foundations for the sea turtle conservation in Cabo Verde.  Although the Cabo Verdean government regulations, the killing of females that come ashore to lay their eggs is still a problem seen across the whole country. 

The Life of Sea Turtles

Sea Turtles have a long and complicated life cycle. They will only reach maturity after 15 – 25 years, and when they do, they will only breed every 2-3 years until they are 45 – 50 years old. Early stages are very vulnerable. The eggs are laid under the sand and are exposed to many natural and anthropogenic threats. There is no maternal care, and this means that the new-born turtles (or hatchlings) will start their life journey alone. Hatchlings and juvenile turtles will face predation and other threats, and even adult turtles will battle against poaching and marine pollution. In the end, only 1 in a 1,000 hatchlings will become adults.

 

Probably, one of the most amazing things about sea turtles is their ability to find their way back after spending 20 years around the ocean. It is mostly accepted that they can follow the earth’s magnetic fields to find the same location where they hatched, although other mechanisms may also help. They can also move to new nearby locations, always looking for quiet places with good nesting conditions.

 

Sea turtles don’t have sexual chromosome like mammals. Instead, their sex is determined by the temperature of incubation of the eggs, something called TDS (Temperature-Determined Sex). Nests that were incubated at lower temperatures may create more males, while warmer temperatures will increase the female's numbers. Although the pivotal temperature could vary within different populations, it is agreed that 29ºC would mark the balanced incubation temperature.

The Importance of Sea Turtles

Sea turtles find themselves on the top of the food chain of most marine ecosystems. Like all megafauna, they help to keep the oceans in healthy conditions and intervene in different steps of the food chain. The disappearance of sea turtles and other keystone species from our oceans, would disrupt the balance of marine ecosystems and, ultimately, would have a huge social and economic impact for humans.

 

Navigate through this diagram of a marine ecosystem to learn more about the ecological importance of sea turtles:

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Source of Food

Sea turtles are also prey for some animals. As adults, they will be a source of food for sharks and orcas. While hatchlings will feed many different animals like fish, crabs, sharks, seabirds and even other terrestrial mammals. Remember, only 1 in a 1,000 baby turtles will survive!

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Coral Reefs

Some species of sea turtles feed on sponges (hawksbills) and algae (greens) that compete with coral for space and suffocate them. Keeping their numbers under control allow coral to grow and expand. Don’t forget that coral reefs are one of the most important ecosystems on earth!

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Seagrass Beds

Green turtles are the gardeners of the oceans. They feed on seagrass keeping it healthy, just like we do with lawnmowers. Seagrass beds are nurseries for many different species of fish, giving them shelter against predators. They also stop the erosion against storms of shallow seabeds. 

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Epibionts

Sea turtles provide habitat for many different small animals, called epibionts, that live in their carapaces and skin. Sea turtles also provide food to some species of fish and shrimps, in what we call “cleaning stations”. They will clean the turtle carapaces from epibionts, keeping a balance of comfort for the turtles.

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Recycle of Nutrients

Loggerheads have incredibly strong jaws capable of crushing seashells. Through the small bits of shells and their faeces, sea turtles increase the rate of nutrient recycling in benthic and ocean bottom ecosystems.

Source of Food

Hatchlings form part of the diet of different animals like fish, crabs, sharks, seabirds and even other terrestrial mammals. Remember, only 1 in a 1,000 baby turtles will survive!

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Protection of Dunes

Sea turtles are also important outside the water. The egg shells and unhatched eggs from their nests will nourish the vegetation cover of the dunes. Vegetation prevents the erosion of the dunes caused by wind, strong tides and waves. Dune ecosystems are very important to mitigate the impacts of Climate Change!

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Recycle of Nutrients

Leatherbacks are one of the few predators of jellyfish. Jellyfish, at the same time, eat fish larvae. The lack of leatherbacks will increase blooms of jellyfish, that could decrease certain populations of fishes, some of them of commercial interest. 

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Sea turtles are, therefore, very important for different ecosystems and many other species depend on them. Another important aspect of sea turtles is that they can help prevent some impacts of Climate Change in coastal communities. Having strong and healthy dune systems and coral reefs will prevent coastal areas to get flooded due to sea level rise and due to an increase of extreme weather events like hurricanes.

 

If we think from a broader perspective we will see that all the roles that sea turtles play in the marine ecosystem have some direct or indirect benefit for humans. But they also bring some important socioeconomic impact on coastal communities where they nest. Through ecotourism, conservation and research, hundreds of Cabo Verdeans are employed every year. In 2016 the network for sea turtle conservation of Cabo Verde, TAOLA, led by the director of Project Biodiversity, prepared a study on the socioeconomic impact of sea turtles in Cabo Verde. In 2016 almost 900,000€ were generated through “turtle watching” excursions and through the employment of staff from all the NGOs working on the field in Cabo Verde. Nowadays this number is expected to have increased considerably. 

6 out of 7 species of sea turtles are threatened of extinction. But who is threatening them? Sadly, humans are responsible for 99% of species extinction in the world. Recent studies found out that the current extinction rate is between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the “normal” extinction rate (background rate). While before only 0,1 species from every million went extinct every year, now this number is at least 100 in every million species.

 

With sea turtles happens the same. Human-driven threats, or anthropogenic threats, are the main causes for the decrease in their populations. In Cabo Verde, as well as in many other places in the world where turtles nest, we can list those threats as following: 

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Climate Change

Climate Change

 

Although not imminent, Climate Change and Global Warming could have a great impact on sea turtles. The rise of the sea level and the increase in the frequency of extreme weather events could affect the nesting habitat, reducing the available space and washing away hundreds of nests. The increase on the global temperature could have a direct impact on the development of the eggs, modifying the sex ratios and even decreasing the success of the nests.

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Habitat ​Degradation & Nest Disturbance

Habitat Degradation and Nest Disturbance

 

The use of the nesting beaches for touristic activities is becoming a new threat for sea turtles in Sal Island. Excursions to observe the nesting turtles, kite-surfers, horse excursions and sometimes quad-bikes driving on the beach, are degrading the nesting habitat. The presence of people during the hatching season can also have a huge impact on the nests that are due to hatch. 

Light Pollution

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Light Pollution

 

Light pollution coming from resorts and beachfront developments are the main reason for the deaths of thousands of baby turtles every season in Sal Island. Baby turtles get disoriented by the artificial lights during the night and crawl tirelessly towards them. Most of them will die being eaten by dogs, crabs or crows, or will dehydrate during the day. 

Poaching

Poaching

Poaching for the meat, the eggs and the shells of sea turtles started hundreds of years ago, with the discovery of the islands of Cabo Verde. The main use given to them was for jewelry, food and traditional medicine. Today they are still killed for their meat and eggs. Although prohibited for more than 20 years, poaching still exists in Cabo Verde. On Sal Island between 15% and 20% of the nesting females are thought to be slaughtered every year. 

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Dog Predation

Dog Predation

Stray dogs are becoming a big threat to sea turtles. Every year more nests are being predated by packs of dogs that have become wild. Stray dogs also attack nesting turtles when they come to lay the eggs causing injuries or, in the best case, the abortion of the nesting.

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Marine Pollution

Marine Pollution

Recent studies say that 50% of all sea turtles have ingested plastic. The east coast of Sal Island receives every year thousands of kilograms of marine debris that accumulates on the beaches. While nesting females can fail their attempt to nest, recent new-born hatchlings get entangled on fishing nets and other rubbish when trying to reach the surface of the sand or even the ocean.

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Loss of Habitat

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Loss of Habitat

 

The development in the coastline of Sal Island, mainly from the tourism industry, is reducing the kilometers of nesting beaches with good conditions. Female Loggerheads are being pushed to nest in smaller beaches, sometimes with no conditions for the proper development of their nests. 

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By-catch &

Ghost Fishing Nets

By-catch &

Ghost Fishing Nets

Long-line fisheries, gillnets and trawlers are one of the main cause of sea turtles’ dead. Recent studies say that hundreds of thousands of sea turtles are being accidentally caught every year. Discarded or lost fishing nets that freely drift on the oceans are another threat for sea turtles and other marine species.

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