Poaching is less of a threat to the survival of sea turtles than it once was, a new analysis suggests1. Illegal sea-turtle catch has dropped sharply since 2000, with most of the current exploitation occurring in areas where turtle populations are relatively healthy.
This study is the first worldwide estimate of the number of adult sea turtles moved on the black market. According to the analysis, more than one million sea turtles were illegally harvested between 1990 and 2020. But the researchers also found that the illegal catch from 2010 to 2020 was nearly 30% lower than that in the previous decade.
“The silver lining is that, despite the seemingly large illegal take, exploitation is not having a negative impact on sea-turtle populations on a global scale. This is really good news,” says co-author Jesse Senko, a marine conservation scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe. The research was published 7 September in Global Change Biology.
Turtles for trinkets
For millennia, humans have used both adult sea turtles and their eggs as a food source and for cultural practices. In the past 200 years, however, many sea turtle populations declined steeply as hunting rose to meet a growing demand for turtle-based goods. In Europe, North America and Asia, sea-turtle shells were used to make combs, jewelry and furniture inlays. Turtles were also hunted for meat and for use in traditional medicine.
The rise in turtle hunting meant that, by 2014, an estimated 42,000 sea turtles were legally harvested every year, and an unknown number of sea turtles were sold on the black market. Today, six of the seven sea-turtle species found around the globe are endangered owing to a deadly combination of habitat destruction, poaching and accidental entanglement in fishing gear.
To pin down how many sea turtles were illegally harvested, Senko and his colleagues surveyed sea-turtle specialists and sifted through 150 documents, including reports from non-governmental organizations, papers in peer-reviewed journals and news articles.
By combining this information, the researchers made a conservative estimate that around 1.1 million sea turtles were illegally caught between 1990 and 2020. Nearly 90% of these turtles were funneled into China and Japan, largely from a handful of middle- and low-income countries (see ‘Long-distance turtle transport’). Of the species that could be identified, the most frequently exploited were the endangered green turtles (Chelonia mydas), hunted for meat, and the critically endangered hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), prized for their beautiful shells.
However, the data also showed that the number of illegally caught turtles decreased from around 61,000 each year between the start of 2000 and the end of 2009 to around 44,000 in the past decade (see ‘More sea turtles swim free’). And, although there were exceptions, most sea turtles were taken from relatively robust populations that were both large and genetically diverse.
Although sea turtles seem to be doing well globally, this doesn’t mean that threats to regional populations can be ignored, says Emily Miller, an ecologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. The study pins down where — and for whom — sea turtles are being exploited, which could help conservationists to target communities for advocacy, she says.
Overall, the numbers signal that conservation efforts could be working, says Senko. “Contrary to popular belief, most sea-turtle populations worldwide are doing quite well,” he says. “The number of turtles being exploited is a shocker, but the ocean is big, and there are a lot of turtles out there.”