The Endangered Sea Turtle Caught in a War Zone

Scientists say creating protected areas in the Middle East is crucial to the Mediterranean green turtle’s survival.

(Photo: Dray Van Beeck/Getty Images)

Feb 14, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Good news for green sea turtles of the Mediterranean: Researchers have identified the marine habitats that are crucial to their survival. It’s information that could help save this endangered species.

The bad news is that some of these critical habitats are located off the coast of a country that’s barely holding itself together.

The new study, published on Thursday in the journal Diversity and Distributions, is the most complete look at green turtle migrations in the Mediterranean yet.

To learn where the turtles lived and foraged when they weren’t nesting, an international team of researchers attached satellite tags to 34 females that visited egg-laying grounds in Cyprus, Israel, Syria, and Turkey. Eventually they gathered and mapped 8,521 turtle-days of information between 1998 and 2010.

It turned out that more than 50 percent of the turtles migrated to live and feed in the shallow expanses of sea off the Libyan coast.

As a result, the researchers have recommended that Libya’s Gulf of Sirte be turned into a protected marine area.

The move would help more than the turtles, said study coauthor Brendan J. Godley. “If green turtles exist somewhere, there’s probably a lot of other biodiversity there too,” said Godley, the chair of conservation science at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

Green turtles were overhunted during several decades of the last century. More recently, unsustainably large numbers of turtles are being caught up and killed during commercial fishing operations in the Mediterranean.

Godley said the study took more than a decade because it was financed “on a shoestring over years—by selling T-shirts.” With better funding the researchers could have tracked the same number of turtles in just two years, he said. “But in a way that adds validity” to the findings, he added, “because we’ve found in other studies that the snapshot you get in one year might not be the same in another year.”

Political instability can be a mixed bag for conservation efforts, Godley said. During times of civil and cross-border warfare, “biodiversity can be horrendously overexploited, like ivory in Africa.”

“But conversely, the exploitative machine doesn’t work as well as it might—nobody’s building hotels and marinas” near Libya’s sensitive coastal ecosystems, he said.

Wildlife has also found refuge amid geopolitical conflicts in demilitarized zones, such as the no-man’s-land between North and South Korea. During the Cold War, the borderlands between Eastern and Western Europe served as a de facto wildlife refuge “because man gets taken out of the equation and it goes wild,” said Godley.

Sea turtle conservation efforts could also help Libyans, Godley said, because “when a society is rebuilding after a meltdown, marine protected areas become especially important for rebuilding the food supply.”

“It’s difficult enough, when there’s good functioning government, to set up a marine protected area,” he said. But “we have been in touch with colleagues in Libya, and there is a pan-Mediterranean [conservation] meeting about to happen in Turkey,” which could be an opportunity to get the discussion underway.

Anyone can see the data used in the study, as well as regular updates on the turtles’ locations, at seaturtle.org, Godley said. “Being able to track them in real time means people can be pointed to something they can follow, something to connect with,” he said. “On its own it doesn’t help change governance. But it’s a helpful tool to go to decision-makers and have maps to show them.”