COMMENTARY by Kendal Hemphill

HOOKED! Feature by Matt Williams
April 10, 2018
PIKE ON THE EDGE by Doug Pike
April 10, 2018

Hot and Cold Running Sea Turtles

I ‘M A PROPONENT OF HUNTING, not only as a source of healthy protein and hearty recreation, but also as a conservation tool. So readers are often surprised to learn that I’m opposed to circuses and zoos.

For some reason, many people equate support for hunting with support for animal abuse. I consider it abusive to imprison a wild animal. I don’t consider it abusive to kill it in fair chase. On the other hand, some animal rights groups seem to have no problem with zoos and circuses,

Hunters, as a group, are people who love and support animals, which is why they happily supply most of the money necessary for wildlife conservation and research. It is typically hunters who report the majority of the poaching and other game law violations to law enforcement authorities.

We realize how important it is to obey regulations for the health of the species and the planet as a whole. It’s also a way to support honorable ethics and to show our respect for the creatures we hunt.

Consequently, I was concerned when I was sent a news article claiming that climate change is causing problems for green sea turtles. Of the seven species of sea turtles, two—leatherbacks and Olive Ridleys—are currently listed as vulnerable.

Hawksbills and Kemp’s Ridleys are critically endangered, and two species, loggerheads and greens, are listed as endangered. There is apparently not enough data on flatbacks to determine their status.

Human depredation is part of the problem. Sea turtles have been heavily hunted for their eggs, skin, shells, and meat, and their habitat has, in some areas, been polluted or otherwise destroyed.

Personally, I consider killing a sea turtle a heinous act, akin to killing a bald eagle, or worse, and I believe most hunters would agree. But people are not the only problem, or even the biggest problem, sea turtles face.

Female sea turtles leave the ocean and lay their eggs in nests on beaches. The number is determined by the species of turtle, but most lay about 100 eggs in a nest, and build from two to eight nests per season.

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Turtles don’t reach maturity, and therefore don’t breed, until they are around 20 years old, and sometimes they skip a season or two. Still, that’s a lot of eggs.

Unfortunately, few of the babies have a chance to reach maturity, or even make it to the water. The eggs generally hatch at the same time, and make a mad dash for the surf.

On the sand, they are prey to myriad predators, most of them birds, and often less than half reach the ocean. Once in the water, they’re vulnerable to just about every fish looking for an easy meal. Life is pretty tough, for a sea turtle, even without the problems caused by humans.

Weather has been an issue lately, and many turtles have been stunned by the freezing temperatures along the Gulf Coast. One Florida facility took in 850 turtles during the cold snap at the first of the year.

Volunteers along the Texas coast braved the harsh weather to save as many turtles as they could. So it seems strange that one of the biggest threats to the green sea turtle, according to the Washington Post and other mainstream news media, is heat.

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There’s no question that temperature plays a part in the life of a sea turtle. Unlike most critters, the sex of sea turtles is determined by the temperature of the sand in which its egg is laid. If the sand is about 85 degrees Fahrenheit, a nest of eggs will hatch about half males and half females.

If the temperature drops below 81.86 degrees, the hatchlings will all be male. Above 87.8 degrees, and they’ll all be female.

Because of this, some researchers are claiming climate change is behind a phenomenon they’re seeing lately in Australia. The warmer temps brought on by global warming, they claim, are causing all the baby green sea turtles to be born female.

I think they’re lying. And here’s why.

The green sea turtle mates in March, and the females crawl up on the sand and build their nests between May and September. Those are definitely the warmer months, in the Northern Hemisphere.

If the problem of sea turtles all being born female was being documented in, say, the Florida Keys, it would make sense that warmer weather was a key factor. No pun intended.

Australia, however, happens to be located in the Southern Hemisphere, where the months of May through September are the coldest of the year. Warm sand is hard to come by down there during that time.

I don’t doubt the researchers’ word that most or all of the babies are being born female, but it seems that, if temperature were the culprit, they would all be males instead.

Maybe I’m wrong about this, and I admit I’m no expert on sea turtles. But if climate change were definitely the problem, I would expect the sea turtles in the Caribbean, where the weather is warmer year-round, to all be born female. So far there is no evidence of that happening.

As a firm believer in being good stewards and protectors of wildlife, I believe we should do all we can to defend creatures such as sea turtles. But we must base our actions on sound science. Blaming everything on climate change not only may be wrong, it may blind us to the real culprit we face.

Email Kendal Hemphill at [email protected]

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