Fight to Save Mediterranean Turtles Successful, but Far From Over

Israel has made headway by tenderly digging up and collecting precious eggs from the beaches to hatch them where it’s safe, but green sea turtles are still critically endangered

Face to face between a lady and a turtle at the Israeli Sea Turtle Rescue Center
Israel Nature and Parks Authority

In early May, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority inspectors will begin their annual quest for turtle eggs, combing Israel’s beaches in an attempt to protect the beleaguered species from extinction.

The loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) climb out of the sea, dig out depressions in the sand and lay their eggs there. When inspectors see the telltale marks on the beach, they tenderly dig up and collect the precious eggs, for relocation to a safe haven for hatching. And thus, thanks to the turtle-saving operation in Israel and elsewhere around the Mediterranean Sea, fresh hope has awakened for the loggerheads, one of only two sea-turtle species in the region. The other one, known as the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), remains in acute danger.

The population of sea turtles has been declining for years. According to a recent United Nations report on the state of turtles, there are only somewhere from 2,300 to 2,800 female loggerheads laying eggs in all of the central and eastern Mediterranean.

Sea turtles are released after hatchingMaya Ben Nisan

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

Some would argue that to be a deeply worrying genetic bottleneck. On the upside, though, sea turtles are protected and the number of nests observed in recent years at least stabilized, at about 7,000 a year (a turtle may leave the sea to nest more than once a year).

Most of the loggerhead nests are on the beaches of Greece and Turkey; there are also some on the coasts of Israel, Cyprus and North Africa. Other coastal countries, such as Libya, may also sport nests but nobody’s surveying there.

Inquiring minds however wanted to know what the turtles get up to when they are not creeping out of the water and laying eggs on the beach, and several studies were pursued in recent years. With the help of satellite transmitters, inquiring minds learned that some turtles may migrate up to 1,000 kilometers in the search for food, even reaching the shores of Tunisia.

Aside from the danger of baby turtles getting eaten on the beaches by predators, the main threat to them is habitat encroachment – even the artificial light that people are addicted to is a problem because it can upset the reptiles’ circadian rhythms. The adults also face huge problems with fishing nets, collision with boats and poaching.

In Israeli waters the turtles’ main problem is fishing nets, says Yaniv Levy, manager of the sea turtle rescue center run by the Nature and Parks Authority. “Others are hurt by military action, including bomb blasts, or exposure to seismic instruments used by gas and oil exploration companies,” he says (Israel doesn’t have any hydrocarbons to speak of on land, but large-scale gas reserves were discovered in its territorial waters at the bottom of the Mediterranean. That was bad news for marine life).

And, not a few turtles are killed by eating plastic, Levy adds.

The oil and gas companies are aware of the impact they have on the life of the turtles. Levy says Noble Energy, an American company involved in developing and exploiting Israel’s marine gas fields together with local businesses, has been setting up infrastructure ahead of building a gas rig off the Israeli beach Dor. Among other things the company has been using heavy machinery – and was asked to schedule its works for before nesting season. The company also agreed to install chains that would keep the turtles away from machinery.

>> On the Banks of the Jordan River, Neanderthals Ate Turtles 60,000 Years Ago <<

Compared with the loggerhead, the green turtle is in even worse condition, and is considered to be critically endangered. The UN report documents only 1,500 nests a year for this species and scientists suspect there are as few as 600 females laying eggs. Almost all – 99% - of green sea turtle nests are on the beaches of Turkey, Cyprus and Syria.

Over here, after the loggerhead babies hatch out from their protected eggs – which can be as many as 10,000 a year - the inspectors take them to the sea. Israel has been doing this for about 15 years and now, with experience under our belts, we can say it’s been working. From about 50 nests per season ten years ago, inspectors are now finding double the amount.

Green turtles are another story: the authorities reckon that only about 20 females a year come to Israel’s shores to nest. However, the turtle rescue people plan to set up a breeding establishment for the beasts along the Alexander River, which runs from the West Bank to the Mediterranean sea. The beleaguered turtles might soon receive a designated beach for their procreation.

One problem which has not been solved is that wave breakers built in the sea to protect swimmers seem to deter female turtles. Beaches with breakers have practically no nests, says Levy. Nothing much is being done about this, though a restaurant owner in Ashkelon was forced to tear down a rock wall he had built to shield the eatery from the waves by the Environment Ministry . Among its reasons, the ministry cited the inability of turtles to use the beach to lay.