Sea turtles have roamed the oceans for the last 110 million years. Existing for so long, however, does not mean that sea turtles are immortal or live stress-free lives. In fact, current sea turtle populations are greatly threatened by several human activities, such as unselective fisheries, direct take, predation, light pollution, illegal trade, habitat loss and climate change, to name but a few.

Most of these threats are attributable to humans and have caused sea turtle populations to plummet in the last few decades. Globally, all seven species of sea turtles are either classified as Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered by IUCN Red List, meaning that the populations have been reduced by at least 50%, 70% or 90% over the last three generations.

If pressures continue with no interventions, sea turtles could disappear from the face of the Earth. If this happens, we would lose vital ecosystem engineers that help maintain the oceans as we know them today. Losing sea turtles would cause habitats such as seagrass beds and coral reefs to degenerate, the ocean food web would become imbalanced (as sea turtles help control jellyfish populations and provide food for other fish), nutrient cycling processes would also be disrupted and small sea creatures would lose their homes.

The loss would not just be ecological; socio-culturally, many coastal communities have a deep affinity with sea turtles. Sea turtles are either their main source of protein and/or play an important cultural role and are sometimes revered or even believed to be ancestors.

Financially, sea turtles are worth more alive than dead, especially from a tourism point of view. The biggest and the most established sea turtle tourism spot is the Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica, which brings in US$6.7 million annually in revenue. The loss of sea turtles would therefore jeopardise jobs and coastal economies, especially in developing countries.

Lastly, being immersed in nature has been proven to improve human wellbeing. Imagine: if such treasures are lost, future generations will no longer be able to see the majestic sea turtle in their oceans.

With that in mind, we must ask ourselves: how are the sea turtles doing in the Arafura and Timor Seas (ATS) region (a large marine ecosystem shared by Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste)?

Six out of seven sea turtle species (i.e., green, hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback, olive ridley and flatback turtles) can be found in the ATS waters. Five of them, except the loggerhead, nest on ATS beaches. Indicative of their global status, sea turtle populations in the ATS region are ailing.

Understanding what is at stake, the ATSEA-2 Project has facilitated the development of the Regional Sea Turtle Action Plan. The plan lists actions that, if implemented, can improve sea turtle conditions in the ATS region. The actions revolve around addressing the discarding of fishing gear, establishing a funding mechanism, addressing bycatch and enhancing sea turtle conservation in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste.

While the ambitious plan still needs to be implemented by governments, researchers and civil societies, the general public can still contribute to improving sea turtle conditions; firstly, by being more aware of the issue – we must be supportive of conservation initiatives such as the ATSEA-2 Project. Awareness is the first step towards and decisive action.

As rudimentary as they may be, environmentally friendly attitudes such as not littering and reducing single-use plastic and waste will be good for sea turtles and the environment in the long run. Being a responsible tourist, especially when interacting with endangered, threatened and protected species such as sea turtles in critical habitats (such as nesting beaches) may help support sustainable tourism and bring economic incentives to the protection of sea turtles. Finally, donating to conservation initiatives may mean the world to the conservationists; regardless of the amount, your support helps drive their missions forward.

16 June 2022 was World Sea Turtle Day. Hopefully, this can be a new dawn in the conservation of sea turtles, as global citizens wake up to a simple truth: that it is incumbent on all of us to treasure and protect all living creatures on our planet. Sea turtles deserve our attention.

This article was published in The Jakarta Post.

(By Casandra Tania)