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Sea turtles, sentinels of the Tunisian marine environment

AA / Tunis / Wejden Jlassi

Sea turtles have inhabited the oceans for millions of years. Nevertheless, their life is not a long calm river.

Despite the importance of their role in the conservation of our seas and the development of other marine species, many threats such as pollution, poaching, accidental fishing or climate change threaten the existence of these “animals”. centenarians”.

Indeed, six of the seven sea turtles are classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

World Turtle Day, celebrated on May 23 every year, is an opportunity to remember that in the preservation of these reptilian species, Tunisia is there, not only with its two sea turtle rescue centers, unique on the shore southern Mediterranean, but also with the research and commitment of specialists, activists and environmental activists.

In this context, the Tunisian researcher, specialist in sea turtles, Hamed Mallat enlightens us on the importance of these reptiles in the marine ecosystem, the dangers which weigh on them and the action plan of Tunisia for their preservation.

Growing threats

There are seven species of sea turtles in the world, three of which live in the Mediterranean: the Loggerhead turtle (its scientific name: Caretta caretta), the Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) and the Green turtle (Chelonia mydas). These migratory reptiles play a key role in marine and coastal ecosystems as well as in species biodiversity.

As soon as they are subject to a problem (disease, threat, pollution, etc.), the whole ecosystem is in danger, which indirectly affects human beings.

During an interview with the Anadolu Agency, Hamed Mallat explained that the dangers incurred by these reptiles mainly fall into two categories: natural threats that fall within the balance of the ecosystem. The hatchlings of turtles and the embryos that are born in their eggs are vulnerable to predators. Animals that prey on turtles include various species of birds, mammals, reptiles and fish.

Then there are the biggest threats that are of human origin like pollution. Let us cite as an example, the plastic that pollutes our environment, which ends up in the oceans and threatens, de facto, marine fauna.

This is the case with turtles. They take the plastic bags for jellyfish and swallow them. They die of suffocation after swallowing a plastic bag or object.

In addition to pollution, there is the destruction of nesting sites, which are dwindling. The development of the coasts, the exploitation under concession of the beaches, the tourist and urbanization projects deprive the sea turtles of their habitat on the coasts.

“At La Chebba in the governorate of Mahdia, we are in the process of losing a nesting site since the development of the corniche project. Streetlights pointing towards the beach confuse the baby turtles who, instead of sailing towards the light reflected by the stars on the water, they head, with the artificial lights of the city, towards the road. In the morning, we find baby turtles crushed under the wheels of cars,” laments our expert.

The other factor that threatens these migratory reptiles is accidental fishing. They often find themselves caught in devices such as driftnets, longlines or straight nets.

“The fisherman is the main core of turtle conservation. Aware of the role it can play, we have bet on the continuous training of fishermen in the preservation of these endangered species. We help them learn the best practices for rescuing turtles, because we want to have marine biologists who will know how to act in the event of danger”, underlines our interlocutor.

In the same vein, Hamed Mallat pointed out that despite numerous regulatory texts on the general protection of sea turtles at the national and international level, and which strictly prohibit the fishing and marketing of these endangered species, the latter are victims poaching.

Some lend themselves to the game of illicit trade in wild species, including sea turtles for its flesh, its shell and even for its alleged aphrodisiac virtues.

“Thanks to the significant wave of awareness in recent years, there are fewer and fewer of these phenomena in Tunisia. We explained to people that science has proven that eating turtle meat is not good for humans because it contains heavy metals,” he added.

At a time when the world is trying to highlight the many problems linked to climate change and the loss of biodiversity, sea turtles are also confronted with the major upheavals induced by the warming of their aquatic world.

Sea level rise will affect the turtle migration corridor and destroy their nesting sites, as beaches will be swallowed up by rising sea water.

In addition, rising temperatures have effects on the genus of sea turtles. Indeed, global warming causes a rise in air and sea temperatures which results in these creatures by a greater number of female offspring.

A satisfactory assessment for Tunisia at the bedside of the turtles

Tunisia has prime sites for the sea turtle, in particular in the Gulf of Gabès which is of particular importance in the Mediterranean, not only for “these sailors of ancient times”, but also for other marine species.

“The Gulf of Gabes, shallow, warm and rich in food, is essential for the Tunisian marine environment”, assures the Tunisian ecologist who recalls that there are two nesting sites for turtles. There are stable sites like Kuriat (with 30 to 40 nests) and other irregular ones like in Hammamet, Kélibia, or even Chott Zouaraa in Béja.

In this regard, it should be noted that on the entire southern shore of the Mediterranean, only Tunisia has benefited, since 2004, from a care and rescue center for sea turtles within the Institute National Marine Science and Technology (NSTM) in Monastir.

This establishment performs autopsies on dead turtles to determine the cause of death and provides care for turtles that have been stranded alive or brought back in the case of accidental captures.

A “SeaTuMed” network was also launched in Tunisia. Its action is focused on the protection of sea turtles on the Tunisian coasts. Of the 50 turtle rescue centers in the Mediterranean, only two are on the southern shore, in Monastir and Sfax in Tunisia.

Asked about the measures put in place for the protection of turtles, Hamed Mallat said that Tunisia has developed a national action plan with different actors and at various levels, which includes in particular the creation of associations, and rescue centers, the popularization of scientific discourse, the application of the law, communication, awareness-raising, the learning of good practices and the development of scientific research.

At the legislative level, Tunisia is working to harmonize its national legislation with international commitments and provisions, particularly with regard to the mitigation of the fishery-turtle interaction, illegal trade and the protection of nesting sites.

“We are really implementing our action plan. Tunisia is very advanced in the conservation of sea turtles. But, that does not mean that we will stop our struggle. We will continue to deploy even more efforts to protect our marine environment”, concluded our vis-à-vis.

Only part of the dispatches, which Anadolu Agency broadcasts to its subscribers via the Internal Broadcasting System (HAS), is broadcast on the AA website, in a summarized manner. Please contact us to subscribe.

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