Releasing three sea turtles in the waves 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).


Sea turtle swimming underwater 


Turtle Excluder Device

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries 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. Small animals, like shrimp, remain in the net.

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.

NOAA fisheries has also helped other countries develop TED programs similar to the one in U.S. waters. If used properly, TEDs can reduce sea turtle bycatch by at least 50%. The effectiveness is increased if TEDs are used along with seasonal shrimp fishery closures when sea turtles gather off the coasts of nesting beaches.


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.



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.

  • This 33-km (20.5-mi.) section of beach is the most important nesting site for loggerheads in the Western Hemisphere.
    • On average, more than 10,000 loggerheads nest at the refuge each year.
  • The refuge is also the most important nesting beach in the United States for the green sea turtle.
    • Typically, more than 1,000 green turtles nest annually at the refuge.
  • The refuge is the northernmost point on the Atlantic coast for leatherback nesting — in 1996 only 10 nests were counted in or just adjacent to the refuge. Since then the number has steadily increased. In 2010, 59 nests were counted in the refuge.

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 with thousands of tourists visiting each year.


Zoological environments

In 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. In 2009, another 82 green turtle eggs were laid, incubated and hatched at SeaWorld San Diego.


SeaWorld guests looking at turtles 


The SeaWorld sea turtle rehabilitation and release program.

  • SeaWorld parks have cared for more than 2,000 rescued green, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, leatherback, loggerhead, and olive ridley sea turtles. Depending on the severity of their injuries, rehabilitated sea turtles are returned to the wild when able to survive on their own.
  • Data gathered through SeaWorld’s rescue program and similar programs can help scientists more accurately assess and recommend sea turtle population management programs in the wild.
  • Sea turtles often need to be rescued after a cold weather snap.
    • Lower than normal water temperatures cause a sea turtle’s metabolism to slow, and the hypothermic turtles become sluggish and are unable to feed. Marine patrol officers often find these cold-stunned sea turtles floating at the water’s surface in a semi-dormant state.
    • SeaWorld Orlando has rehabilitated hundreds of rescued cold-stunned sea turtles.
      • During a cold water event in January 2010, more than 300 cold-stunned turtles recovered at park’s rehabilitation center. When the weather warmed up the turtles are returned to the same area from which they were rescued. Of the cold-stunned turtles rescued in January 2010, more than 250 turtles were returned to the wild.


Many rescued sea turtles 


  • SeaWorld Orlando provided a safe place to recover for nearly 130 oil-impacted sea turtles in 2010. SeaWorld is one of the few organizations with the space and expertise to tend to the special needs of multiple species of sea turtles, including the Kemp’s ridley. Once recovered, nearly all the sea turtles were returned to oil-free waters in the wild.


Rescued juvenile sea turtle 


  • Other common reasons for sea turtle rescues include fishing gear entanglement injuries and motorboat collisions.


Tracking sea turtles

  • By fitting sea turtles with satellite and other tracking devices, scientists at HSWRI (Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute) and SeaWorld have sought to gain a greater understanding of turtle navigation and biology in the face of threats from fishing, pollution, and habitat destruction.
  • Sea turtles can be fitted with several types of tags or transmitters when they are returned to the wild after rescue and when on beaches (especially nesting female sea turtles). The best tag to use depends on the particular study. Often one or more types of tags may be used at a time.
    • Many rehabilitated rescued sea turtles are given a uniquely numbered metal or plastic flipper tag when returned to the wild. Adult female sea turtles are also tagged this way after they finish laying their eggs on the nesting beaches. The advantages to flipper tags are that this is a fairly easy and low cost tracking method. The main disadvantages for flipper tags are that any tagged turtles must be sighted again (with the tag number visible), these tags are not permanent, and tag numbering is limited to the small tag size. This method is particularly used on female turtles since they return to their nesting grounds.


    Tagged sea turtle being released

    • PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tags are rice grain sized tags that are injected under the skin or into the muscles of a sea turtle. These tags are read with a specialized scanner that detects the tag’s unique alphanumeric number when a turtle is recaptured or sighted during nesting. Because of their small size, PIT tags can be implanted into sea turtle hatchlings, although they are usually only used on sea turtles more than 30 cm (12 in.) in carapace length. PIT tags are more expensive than flipper tags, but usually last the sea turtle’s entire life. One disadvantage is that not all scanners can read all PIT tags, and a PIT tag is only useful with the right type of scanner.
    • An acoustic/sonic tag is a tiny sound-emitting device that is attached to a sea turtle’s carapace with marine epoxy. An array of submerged acoustic receivers can detect a tagged turtle’s unique signal when it comes within range—generating a 3D track in real time—this is known as ‘passive tracking’, because the it only works if the tagged turtles swim within range of the fixed receivers. Acoustic tags can also be used to actively track sea turtles. In this case, the receiver or hydrophone is on board a research vessel, and the tagged turtles are tracked real-time, usually as they move around a specific area such as a bay or estuary. Acoustic tags have a battery life of up to four years (longer than satellite tags) and are the only tag type that tracks a sea turtle’s underwater movement in such detail. This is an excellent way to track hundreds of sea turtles within a given area to see how much a sea turtle uses that particular area and how that use changes over time. This method is only useful within the range of the underwater array of receivers, although with multiple receivers arranged in a grid or line, the range of the receivers can extend to hundreds of kilometers.
    • A radio tag is a transmitter that is attached to a sea turtle’s carapace so that the tag will be out of the water to transmit a signal via radio waves at a specific VHF (very high frequency) when the animal surfaces to breathe. Radio tags require that the researchers must be within a certain distance of the animal with an antennae and VHF receiver that is tuned to a given sea turtle’s frequency. Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute developed a radio transmitter harness for leatherback turtles. Its design allows secure attachment of a transmitter without affecting turtle mobility and the harness automatically releases within several months.
    • A satellite tag is a large radio transmitter that is attached to a sea turtle’s carapace with marine epoxy so that the tag’s antennae will be out of the water to transmit when the animal surfaces to breathe. The signal is automatically transmitted to an Argos positioning system (that uses Earth orbiting satellites), where it is relayed to a ground receiving station and then to an Argos Processing Center (which calculates position of the transmitter). The processed data can then be downloaded by a researcher onto his/her computer. Satellite tags are used to track long-range movements of sea turtles, such as when they migrate between nesting and feeding grounds. These migrations may be hundreds or thousands of kilometers, across deep ocean basins, well beyond the range of an acoustic tag or VHF radio tag. A satellite tag has a battery life of up to about one year. Satellite tags are expensive and larger than acoustic tags, but allow for very long range (hundreds or thousands of kilometers), real-time tracking of sea turtles. Some can also record diving and temperature information. Satellite tracking points can also be overlaid on maps with other types of data (e.g., water temperature, location of seagrass beds, water depth, shore line topography) to provide more information on sea turtle habitat use. This is the best method for tracking the migrations for adult and juvenile male and female turtles. Since they lack a hard shell, leatherbacks require a specialized, backpack-like harness to hold a satellite tag. The movements of Maude (green turtle) and Myrtle (olive ridley turtle) are currently being tracked by SeaWorld San Diego and Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute with satellite tags.


Sea turtle with satellite tag 


The SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund

The SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund (SWBGCF), a non-profit charitable organization, sponsors projects involving marine and terrestrial animals including sea turtles.  Past and present 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 co-factors 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: 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 down-listing 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 Gulf's 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.

Project: Monitoring Artificial Illumination of Sea Turtle Nesting Beaches
Conservation partner: Sea to Shore Alliance
As baby sea turtles hatch and emerge from their nests at night they depend on the glow from the horizon to guide them to the ocean. Artificial lights on nesting beaches can disorient baby turtles; leading them away from the ocean where they can fall victim to predators, vehicles or exhaustion. With support from the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, Sea to Shore Alliance’s sea turtle lighting survey provides a statewide assessment of beach illumination from the sea turtles’ perspective. Biologists fly aerial surveys at night to collect video images and record beachfront lighting levels using special light measuring equipment. The data is linked to GIS and GPS information allowing wildlife managers to locate, map, and observe nesting beaches with excessive artificial lighting. This project monitors efforts to reduce artificial illumination of nesting beaches on all of Florida’s coasts.

Project: Eliminating Leatherback Sea Turtle Mortality in Coastal Gillnet Fisheries
Conservation partner: Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network
One key threat to sea turtles is accidental capture in coastal gillnet fisheries. More than 10,000 critically endangered leatherback turtles nest each year on beaches of Trinidad and Tobago. Unfortunately nearly 3,000 gillnet entanglements occur annually in waters near these island nations. This high rate of bycatch (accidental entanglement) threatens both leatherback recovery efforts and the incomes of artisanal fishers since many are unable to fish during the leatherback nesting season. With support from the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network has developed methods to reduce or eliminate this mortality, while at the same time increase the efficiency and income of fishers. The results of this program have been shared with other groups to help reduce sea turtle bycatch in other areas.

Project: Training Fishermen to Save Sea Turtles
Conservation partner: Research Center for Environmental and Development (CIMAD)
Bycatch (accidental entanglement) in fisheries is responsible for the drastic reduction of sea turtles in the many regions. Hawksbill, leatherback, green and olive ridley sea turtles are often hooked in longlines or accidentally entangled in drift nets off the Pacific coast of Colombia. To help turtles rescued from entanglement, a Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Unit was established in Guapi, Colombia by CIMAD. Yet, there is still a high rate of mortality for entangled turtles that are returned by fishermen to the sea without receiving any first aid. Since 2008, the Fund has provided grants to help with operating costs at the rehabilitation unit. The Fund’s support also helps provide training in basic veterinary skills to local fishermen, who then actively contribute in the reduction of turtle bycatch through the treatment and release of animals on site or by sending them to the Rehabilitation Unit. In addition, workshops help raise awareness on the importance of protecting sea turtles and their habitats, as well as engage fishermen on the importance of smart gear and other “turtle friendly” fishing practices. Overall, these efforts help local fishermen protect sea turtles in the Colombian Pacific.

Project: Promoting Turtle Excluder Devices (TED) for Sea Turtle Conservation in Bangladesh
Olive ridley sea turtles are often accidentally caught in fishing nets along the coast of Bangladesh. With financial support from the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, a conservation group is encouraging the local fishing communities to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs). Additionally, the group is constructing TEDs from locally available materials, training fishermen on their use, and developing a monitoring system to ensure TED use.

Project: Establishing Sea Turtle Conservation Capacities at Salamina, Nicaragua
Conservation partner: Fauna & Flora International
Along the Pacific Coast, poaching of sea turtle eggs has significantly reduced marine turtle populations. In particular, the Pacific leatherback population has collapsed from tens of thousands of nesting females to fewer than 1,000 in 2 decades. Without effective conservation actions, experts predict the species could soon become extinct. Since 2002, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has operated a sea turtle conservation program in Nicaragua, which addresses the leading threats of poaching and habitat destruction. Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast hosts 3 important leatherback nesting sites: Rio Escalante-Chacocente Wildlife Refuge; Isla Juan Venado Nature Reserve; and Salamina, a recently discovered nesting beach that is not in a protected area. The SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund helped FFI establish full-scale conservation efforts, which occurred for the first time during the 2009-2010 nesting season at Salamina. Multi-year support from the Fund helped develop monitoring and protection operations, train patrol volunteers ,and raise sea turtle conservation awareness among local students and citizens of all ages. Prior to FFI’s intervention in these critical nesting areas, 100% of the leatherback nests were being poached; now 80 to 100% of nests are protected.

Project: Dispersal, Behavior and Survivorship of Post-Hatchling Sea Turtles
Conservation partner: Dr. Katherine Mansfield, Principal Investigator
Little is known about the early life histories of sea turtles. A grant from the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund has helped researchers explore new tagging technologies to track the early dispersal and survivorship of newly hatched loggerhead and leatherback turtles off the southeast Florida coast. The study tested small-scale telemetry (remote tracking) technologies and attachment methods to find out when and how the hatchlings’ dispersal patterns diverge, and also compare and describe offshore nursery habitats including any oceanographic features that may influence dispersal. The study provides data to management agencies for more accurate estimates of species’ survivorships during the hatchlings’ first 24-hours in the ocean. These data let the agencies more effectively adjust existing dispersal and oceanographic models to identify probable oceanic nursery areas, early dispersal patterns, and post-hatchling survivorship rates. The data can then be used to more effectively manage these areas for the long-term survival of sea turtle hatchlings.

Project: Movements and Habitat Preference of the Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
Conservation partner: Texas A&M University of Galveston
A continued threat to Kemp’s ridley turtles is accidental entanglement in fishing gear. A grant from the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund let researchers update the Kemp’s Ridley Recovery Plan, which lacked information about the ocean life of this species. This project rescued and rehabilitated Kemp’s ridley turtles accidentally caught by recreational fishermen, then satellite-tagged the turtles to monitor post-release behavior and survival rates. Data collected from this study helped researchers understand the turtle’s use of nearshore Gulf waters, habitat preferences, short-term movements, long-term migratory behavior and potential for exposure to nets and other fishing equipment. The Fund grant ensured a continuance of the western Gulfs only in-water monitoring program for Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.


Sea turtle and barracuda