Sea Turtle

Conservation & Research

Legal Protection For Sea Turtles

The Endangered Species Act, 1973 (ESA).

  • The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) is administered by the U.S. Departments of Interior and Commerce. It seeks to stop the extinction of wild animals and plants in the United States, other nations, and at sea. All sea turtles except the flatback are listed as threatened or endangered on the U.S. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants List. It is illegal to harm, or in any way interfere with, a sea turtle or its eggs.
  • Under the ESA, the hawksbill, Kemp's ridley, leatherback, populations of green sea turtles (along Florida and the Pacific coast of Mexico), and breeding populations of olive ridleys (on the Pacific coast of Mexico) are listed as "endangered" (species face a very high risk of extinction).
  • The loggerhead, green (except the populations listed above), and olive ridley (except the populations listed above) sea turtles are listed as "threatened" (species face a high risk of extinction).

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

  • CITES is an international treaty, developed in 1973, to regulate trade in certain wildlife species.
  • CITES Appendix I includes species identified as endangered (species faces a very high risk of extinction). All sea turtle species are listed under Appendix I in CITES.

International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)

  • IUCN/The World Conservation Union is a worldwide conservation organization.
  • This organization links together government agencies, non-government agencies, and independent states to encourage a worldwide approach to conservation.
  • The hawksbill and Kemp's ridley sea turtles are both listed as critically endangered (the species faces an extremely high risk of extinction) by the IUCN.
  • The green, loggerhead, and olive ridley sea turtles are all listed as endangered (species faces a very high risk of extinction).

Turtle Excluder Device

At a cost of millions of dollars, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service developed the Turtle Excluder Device (TED).

The TED is a small, metal grid trapdoor inside a trawling net that allows shrimp to pass to the back while the turtles escape to safety before becoming entrapped or entangled.

Since 1989, federal law requires that this device be installed on the nets of all U.S. fishing trawlers working in areas populated by sea turtles.

Protecting Nests

Sometimes field biologists protect sea turtle nestlings from predators by placing screens over them. They may also relocate eggs laid too close to the water or in erosion zones to safer areas.Sea turtles and their nests are protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Florida Marine Protection Act.

In a bold conservation program, the townspeople in one small Costa Rican beach village are allowed to gather eggs during the first two nights of each olive ridley arribada. Scientists have calculated that a controlled harvest would leave enough protected eggs to rejuvenate the population (in one nesting season, 20 to 30 million olive ridley eggs may be laid in this beach village) while allowing villagers to maintain a livelihood. The program has the potential to stop egg poachers on other beaches by keeping the prices of the "legal" eggs too low for poachers to compete.


Although eliminating beach lighting would be the most effective way to reduce disorientation of hatchlings, studies have shown that low pressure sodium vapor lights have a lesser effect on loggerhead and green sea turtle hatchlings. Many beach communities have encouraged the use of these lights.

Wildlife Refuges

In 1991, Congress established the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge on the east coast of Florida. After completion of the acquisition of privately-owned, mostly undeveloped lands, the refuge will cover 900 acres, including 33 km (20.5 miles) of important sea turtle nesting habitat between Melbourne Beach and Wabasso Beach. Federal, state, and local agencies and private groups are sharing the projected $80 million cost to obtain the lands to complete the reserve.

  • This 33 km (20.5 mile) section of beach is the most important nesting site for loggerheads in the Western Hemisphere.
  • The refuge is also the most important nesting beach in the United States for the green sea turtle.
  • The refuge is the northernmost point on the Atlantic coast for leatherback nesting - in 1996 only ten nests were counted in or just adjacent to the refuge, in 2001 the number of nests counted steadily increased to 39.
  • The refuge is also considered prime real estate for commercial development, making government funding essential to its preservation.

The governments of Nicaragua and Costa Rica have established, and are striving to expand, national parks and biological reserves where sea turtles forage and nest. Tortuguero, Costa Rica maintains the largest green sea turtle rookery in the Caribbean. Local economics is no longer based on turtle harvests, but on tourism. More than 15,000 visitors are expected each year.

Managing Sex Ratios

Most conservationists believe that abundant nesting females are desirable to rejuvenate sea turtle populations. Researchers with Reptile Conservation International have developed and patented a technique of applying an estrogen solution onto eggs to produce a higher number of females under normal incubation.

In Zoological Environments

Having sea turtles at marine zoological parks provides an opportunity for the public to learn, up-close, about these animals and how human activities may impact their survival. SeaWorld San Diego, SeaWorld Orlando, SeaWorld San Antonio, and Busch Gardens Tampa all offer a Saving a Species Tour in which guests can learn about endangered animals including sea turtles. A portion of the tour proceeds goes to the SeaWorld-Busch Gardens Conservation Fund - a non-profit charitable organization that sponsors sea turtle research along with other projects.

In the protected environment of a marine zoological park, scientists can examine aspects of sea turtle biology that are difficult or impossible to study in the wild. In June of 2003, aquarists at SeaWorld San Diego made history by successfully incubating and hatching 21 sea turtle eggs that were laid by a female green sea turtle at the park.

SeaWorld Parks rehabilitates an average of 45-50 rescued green, hawksbill, Kemp's ridley, leatherback, loggerhead, and olive ridley sea turtles each year. Depending on the severity of their injuries, rehabilitated sea turtles are released. In 2004, SeaWorld released its 800th rehabilitated sea turtle.

  • Sea turtles are often rescued after a cold weather snap. Low water temperatures cause a sea turtle's metabolism to slow - the hypothermic turtles become sluggish and are unable to feed. Marine patrol officers may find the turtles floating at the surface of the water in a semi-dormant state.
  • In December 1989, 95 hypothermic green sea turtles were rescued from Florida's Merritt Island. These turtles were housed in recovery pools at SeaWorld of Florida for about 10 weeks. Once the weather warmed up, the turtles were released in the same area that they were rescued.
  • SeaWorld has rescued other sea turtles with injuries resulting from entanglement, motorboat collisions, ocean dredging, or ingestion of non-food items.

Data gathered through the SeaWorld Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Program and similar programs can help scientists more accurately assess and recommend sea turtle population management programs in the wild.

By fitting sea turtles with satellite tracking devices, scientists at the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute (HSWRI) and SeaWorld have sought to gain a greater understanding of turtle navigation and biology in the face of threats to the species from fishing, pollution, and habitat destruction.

  • After living 30 years at SeaWorld San Diego, three mature Pacific loggerhead sea turtles were released and tracked off the California coast in October 2000.
    • As of August 2001, Bubba, a male Pacific Loggerhead sea turtle, had reached Japanese waters - the first of the turtles to do so. He traveled an average of 30 to 40 km (18-24 mi.) per day since his release.
    • As of Sept. 25, 2001, Crackers was 430 km (267 mi.) from Japan.
    • As of April 18, 2002, Mihali had made a run for a nesting beach about 200 km (124 mi.) from Yakushima, which put her right on schedule for mid-summer nesting that year.
    • Information gathered from this study will help close an important gap in past research because it has been difficult to study sea turtles away from their nesting colonies, where they spend only 10% of their time.
  • Scientists with HSWRI along with colleagues at The University of Central Florida, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, and the Marinelife Center of Juno Beach have initiated a study on post-nesting migrations of leatherbacks that nest in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge and Juno Beach in Florida, and Tortuguero Beach in Costa Rica.
    • In 2003, ten leatherback sea turtles were equipped with satellite-linked radio transmitters.
    • Data collected from this study will help advance U.S. and international efforts to protect the leatherbacks and the critical habitats they rely on for survival.
  • The SeaWorld-Busch Gardens Conservation Fund (SWBGCF), a non-profit charitable organization, sponsors projects involving marine and terrestrial animals including sea turtles. Sea turtle projects include:

Project: Loggerhead Turtle Tracking
Partner: National Oceanic & Atmospheric AdministrationLocation: Cape Verde archipelago, western Africa
The Cape Verde archipelago represents one of the largest loggerhead nesting populations in the Atlantic Ocean and is likely the largest nesting population in western Africa. Although some areas of the archipelago are protected, human predation of sea turtles is significant. Satellite tracking technology allows NOAA to track turtles from Cape Verde to identify important life history information, migratory pathways, and feeding grounds. This information will provide the support required for increased protection of the loggerhead turtle. The SWBGCF grant allowed NOAA to purchase satellite transmitters needed to conduct this study.

Project: Environmental Co-Factors and Fibropapillomatosis in the Green Sea Turtle
Partner: University of Central Florida
Location: Florida, USA
Fibropapillomatosis (FP) is an infectious disease threatening endangered Florida populations of green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas). Fibropapillomatosis is prevalent in degraded marine environments, but the environmental cofactors that increase incidence of FP remain unknown. The University of Central Florida study uses novel bio-molecular technology - a cellular-diagnostic system (CDS) - to identify environmental stressors - associated with FP among 3 populations with differing occurrences of the disease. The SWBGCF grant partially funds the study.

Project: Reducing Marine Turtle Bycatch in the Fisheries of the Eastern Pacific Ocean through Improvement in Fishing Gear and Techniques
Partner: World Wildlife Fund
Location: Eastern Pacific Ocean
The future survival of leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles is threatened by fisheries bycatch, particularly bycatch in longline and coastal gill net fisheries. Fortunately, advances in fishing equipment and methods could dramatically reduce this bycatch. Recent research has demonstrated that turtle bycatch can be reduced by as much as 90% through changes to longline fishing gear and techniques, including the use of circle hooks instead of traditional "J" hooks. Acting on these findings, WWF is promoting widespread improvement in fishing gear and techniques by engaging industry and governments in testing and promoting circle hooks and other improvements, turning a lose-lose situation into a win-win. WWF is also exploring ways in which gill net fishing might be improved. The SWBGCF grant helps support this industry and government outreach campaign.

Project: Movements and Habitat Preference of the Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle
Partner: Texas A&M University of Galveston
Location: Northwestern Gulf of Mexico
The critically endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle is experiencing a modest recovery from less than 300 nesting females in 1985. Continued species recovery and eventual downlisting to threatened status require researchers to update the Kemp's Ridley Recovery Plan, currently lacking information about the ocean life of this species. This project helps rescue, rehabilitate and track Kemp's ridley sea turtles accidentally caught by recreational fishermen. The satellite-tagged animals are tracked to monitor post-release behavior and survival rates. Data collected from this study helps researchers understand the turtle's use of near shore Gulf waters, habitat preferences, short-term movements, long-term migratory behavior and potential for exposure to fisheries interactions. The SWBGCF grant helps ensure a continuance of the western Gulfs only in-water monitoring program for Kemp's ridley sea turtles.

Project: Abatement of egg poaching in a Pacific leatherback nesting site
Partner: World Wildlife Fund
Location: Costa Rica
This project aims to increase the percentage of hatchlings from leatherback and black sea turtle nests occurring on an unprotected Costa Rica beach. Pacific leatherbacks are at risk of extinction unless drastic measures are taken. Every egg counts. Poaching currently impacts two-thirds of leatherback nests and all black turtle nests at Playa Junquillal, a recently discovered beach with a high number of nests. Increasing awareness of the benefits of marine turtle conservation among nest poachers and egg consumers, this project promotes alternative income sources dependent on live marine turtles. The SWBGCF grant helps fund a comprehensive community education program encouraging poachers to generate income by participating in research and conservation programs.
The SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund works on behalf of wildlife and habitats worldwide with the goal of encouraging sustainable solutions through the support of critical conservation initiatives around the globe.

The SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund works on behalf of wildlife and habitats worldwide with the goal of encouraging sustainable solutions through the support of critical conservation initiatives around the globe.