Unintended Consequences?

From all-creatures.org
Animal Rights Articles

Moo-ving people toward compassionate living

Visit our Home Page
Write us with your comments

Unintended Consequences?

By Priscilla Feral, Friends of Animals

The oceans’ fish and crustaceans are not ours to eat; moreover, they’re needed for the survival of other marine animals who live and depend on a healthy ocean – free of nets, trawlers and lines to catch fish.

It turns out they have a little magnetite crystal in their brain, as homing pigeons do. They use this to sense the earth’s magnetic field -- apparently recognizing the unique magnetic path to their homes.

During a trip through North Carolina, on my way to visit friends on Hilton Head Island, I read a stirring article about a marriage proposal on a Hilton Head beach. It produced an “unintended consequence: The death of about 60 federally protected loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings,” reported The Charlotte Observer on September 25, 2009.

After the candle-lit proposal, the couple left the beach without extinguishing candles they placed inside 150 open, sand-filled paper bags – unaware of local laws that safeguard baby sea turtles by prohibiting the placement of candles on the beach. Nor were they aware of beachfront light restrictions in force from May through October.

Loggerhead sea turtles nest on the fourteen miles of Hilton Head beaches each summer, and Coastal Discovery Museum staff patrols the beaches from May through October to move nests from precarious locations to assure the safety of the hatchlings.

Green Turtle returning to sea after laying eggs

Carlos Chacon, the museum’s Manager of Natural History, told me Hilton Head’s code enforcement officers patrol the beaches after dark to enforce the lights-out policy too: “We don’t want house lights visible from the beach.”

Warnings are given. Fines of $1,092 can be imposed by law. Rules are designed to discourage and prevent humans from stealing eggs.

Carlos explains: “Everywhere sea turtles nest, there are people eating their eggs.”

Some people in the Latin American community consider turtle eggs an aphrodisiac, Carlos adds; and some Native Islanders put turtle eggs on fancy cakes.

Loggerhead turtles mate at sea by early June, and the nesting season peaks in June and July. Each nest contains up to 120 eggs the size and shape of ping-pong balls. Carlos Chacon estimates that 40 or more loggerheads nested on Hilton Head beaches in 2009, with each of these female turtles digging four to six nests, producing 178 sand-covered nests. Two were lost – dug out of the sand from depths of two feet, and removed from the beach.

Destroyed turtle eggs on polluted beach

Moreover, though they have few natural predators, other than Tiger sharks and Great White sharks, the mortality rate of hatched turtles is huge. Only one out of a few hundred or thousand survives to adulthood. At 25 years of age, the 300-pound survivors, with reddish-brown shells and brownish-yellow skin, come ashore to nest. They can live another 60 years or more, laying thousands of eggs in their lifetime. Yet loggerheads and all other species of sea turtles are in danger of extinction.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, in Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras, is fascinated with sea turtles. Jeffrey visits a Costa Rican beach, and wonders what will happen to the two-inch-long hatchlings who emerge from a nest. They wait until dark, then race to the sea, Jeffrey learns -- and most don’t make it. Those who do will one day, in many years, come back to lay their eggs on the very same beach.

“It sounded like magic,” Jeffrey writes. “How could they possibly return to the same beach years later?

It turns out they have a little magnetite crystal in their brain, as homing pigeons do. They use this to sense the earth’s magnetic field -- apparently recognizing the unique magnetic path to their homes.

Two months after loggerheads lay their eggs at night, turtles begin to hatch, having to liberate themselves from their nests without parental help. Hatchlings break open their shells using a temporary tooth. The hatchlings dig out of the nest in a days-long group effort. They burst out of the nest as a group at night, and head to the brightest light, the reflection of the moon on water. Full moons benefit hatchlings, guiding them to the sea when the moon’s strongest light shines over water. Then a long and perilous underwater migration begins.

Literature distributed by the Coastal Discovery Museum to Hilton Head’s hotels warns the tourist community to leave turtles and their nests undisturbed, and to turn lights out so that hatchlings are not distracted. Carlos explains that those 60 hatchlings who emerged from their nest on the beach strewn with candles were disoriented by the artificial light. They wandered inland, and were likely caught by natural predators such as Ghost crabs and birds, or died of dehydration.

Once in the Atlantic Ocean, hatchlings born on Hilton Head’s beaches swim 60 miles to the Gulf Stream, with its currents filled with algae. Sargassum weed provides ample food and helps conceal the turtles from predators. Baby turtles must evade sharks, big fish and overhead birds. They might also die from accidentally eating balloons, plastic bags and other garbage, or getting trapped by trawlers, angling gear and gill nets.

After several years of floating around the Atlantic, young turtles who have made their way to Europe and then along the west coast of Africa then travel west across the Atlantic to make their way back to shore waters and nest on the beach where they were born. This journey makes them, as Jeffrey Masson says, “one of the most intriguing animals on our planet. It’s also heroic: Only one in one thousand makes it back.”

With all the obstacles sea turtles face, it’s fitting we assist their survival by not releasing balloons, using and discarding plastic bags and other non-degradable litter that many sea turtles mistake for food, and by respecting the needs and lives of these remarkable beings. The oceans’ fish and crustaceans are not ours to eat; moreover, they’re needed for the survival of other marine animals who live and depend on a healthy ocean – free of nets, trawlers and lines to catch fish.