Baby turtles marching their way to the sea from a sandy nest. (Credit: DEKAFOK)

Turkish campaigners are working hard to save two species of sea turtle from the threat of extinction due to human activity on land, overfishing at sea and the effects of climate change.

Loggerhead and green turtles mate and lay their eggs on land, finding their way back to the beaches where they themselves hatched. Turkey provides one of their most important habitats: around 80 per cent of green turtles lay their eggs on Turkish beaches, and so do almost half of the loggerhead turtle population. 

Yakup Kaska (Credit: Personal archive)

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classes both species as under threat of extinction, with the loggerhead turtle placed on its red list of urgent cases. 

Yakup Kaska, chair of the Sea Turtles Research, Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (DEKAMER), told Inside Turkey that only one out of each 1,000 newly-hatched turtles lives until adulthood, which makes the preservation of their mating zones all the more critical.

“As a protection and rehabilitation centre, we do everything we can to make sure every newborn turtle reaches the water successfully. It’s helpful for businesses on beaches to use red lights in lieu of regular lighting to make sure the newborn turtles can find their way to the water without getting distracted,” Kaska said.

More than 60 newborn sea turtles died on August 27 on Antalya’s Belek beach after getting stuck under wooden walkways laid down by a local hotel; an investigation was launched into the incident. The hotel was likely at fault, Kaska said. 

An injured loggerhead turtle receiving treatment at DEKAMER (Credit: DEKAMER)

“Turtles start laying eggs on beaches in May, so we ask hotels to complete their beach landscaping, like tanning beds and umbrellas, by the end of April,” he continued. “Incidents like that in Belek occur when you change the location of walkways in May or June. It’s saddening that an incident like this happened, but sometimes mistakes like this draw attention to correct practices and increase awareness that can ensure better systems in the future.” 

Nurullah Alkan (Credit: Personal archive)

Boat propellers are another common cause of injury and death among sea turtles, and the 

Kaptan June Sea Turtle Conservation Foundation hands out protective gear to boat owners to prevent such accidents. 

“Turtles used to swim around boats fearlessly because passengers would throw food at them, and they would get hurt. Banning boat passengers from feeding turtles was the solution to this issue,” Kaska said.

DEKAFOK information and observation center (Credit: DEKAFOK)

Aside from propellers, fishing hooks and plastic waste are among the primary causes of injury for sea turtles, according to DEKAMER veterinary surgeon Koray Kabadayıoğlu. Sometimes, turtles are also admitted due human-inflicted injuries, he added. 

“A loggerhead turtle named Damla came into our centre five months ago for a gunshot wound – 65 pellets were found in her body, and we were only able to remove 30 as the rest were located in too risky spots for us to intervene,” he said. “Damla has been getting better, and is able to eat and swim on her own, but she has to heal completely before we can return her to her natural habitat.” 

The climate crisis is having an adverse effect on sea turtles’ lives alongside human activity on land, explained Nurullah Alkan, a biology student at Ordu University and a volunteer with the Ecological Research Society (EKAD).

“We know that each adult returns to the beach they hatched on to lay their eggs, but these locations may vanish within the 20 years it takes for a turtle to reach adulthood, or they may look completely different,” Alkan continued. “Scientific data shows that sea turtles’ nesting locations have shifted more and more to the Aegean from the Mediterranean. It’s predicted that even the northern Aegean province of Çanakkale could become home to nests within the next 100 years.”

The pier at Manavgat district in Antalya province is another crucial nesting zone for sea turtles. The Sea Turtles, Mediterranean Seals and Sand Lilies Protection and Preservation Association (DEKAFOK) works to ensure the species’ safety in the area. 

Seher Akyol (Credit: Personal archive)

“I was walking on the beach with my son one day when I witnessed a mother loggerhead turtle lay her eggs in a nest she dug, but the eggs were shattered shortly after when a vehicle drove over them before the mother could cover them up,” said DEKAFOK founder Seher Akyol. “My son said that we needed to save the caretta, and I got to thinking about what could be done.

“I got in touch with the local municipality and asked that a moat be dug around the pier and a warning sign be put up to prevent motor vehicles from entering the area. They dug the moat, but I saw that off-road vehicles still enter the pier area despite the warning sign. I decided to quit my job in law and started a five-month watch by the moat with my son, a friend and a tent. Those were the first seeds of the association and we officially launched on November 27, 2020.”

Manavgat also saw a similar accident recently, when two people on quad bikes entered the beach one night while DEKAFOK members were on guard duty. 

“The two people who entered the beach despite our warning started to ride their quad bikes in our direction,” Akyol said. “They injured one volunteer who had to be taken to the hospital. We saw the dead newborns on the beach when we got back from the hospital. We had an expert inspect the scene afterwards who said that a third quad bike rider entered the beach while we were at the hospital, and rode over the babies who had just hatched, killing them.” 

The fishing industry is also culpable. Bottom trawling has risen in popularity in recent years, causing an increase in the accidental fishing of sea turtles. Around 51,000 loggerhead turtles have been caught in these nets to date, with around 9,000 reported dead. 

A loggerhead turtle injured by a fishing cook (Credit: DEKAMER)

With DEKAMER as one of their Turkish partners, an international project called The MedBycatch is also active in Croatia, Italy, Morocco and Tunisia to reduce the incidental capture of endangered species. A turtle exclusion device developed by the project has become a solution to deep trawling accidents with sea turtles, Kaska told Inside Turkey. A metal grille placed inside the trawling net allows for shrimp and fish to enter but opens up an escape hole for any sea turtles that may get tangled up in it. This device can reduce the harm inflicted on sea turtles, Kaska explained, adding that further techniques like changing the shape of fishing hooks and the use of green warning lights on static nets are being tested by fishermen in the Mediterranean.

DEKAMER monitoring has also revealed just how mobile sea turtles are, reinforcing the fact that this problem cannot be solved within one country’s borders alone.