Sea Turtles: Ambassadors of the Ocean to Your Classroom
Sea turtles are, as world renowed" oceanographer Dr.
Sylvia Earle likes to say, "ambassadors of the oceans".
Connecting our terrestrial homes to the vast oceans covering
70 percent of our planet, sea turtles can also serve as ambassadors
to the classroom. By studying the plight of sea turtles, students
learn about marine biology, international relations, distant
cultures, sustainability, climate change, pollution, health,
and a wide range of other conservation issues.
The new documentary film, "Last Journey for the Leatherback?," directed
by award winning filmmaker Stan Minasian, investigates the
risks to the ancient leatherback sea turtle posed by longline
fishing for tuna, swordfish and shark. The leatherback species,
unique among sea turtles for its leathery covering rather than
a hard shell, is estimated to be as much as 100 millions old.
Unfortunately, the number of nesting females in the Pacific
has nose-dived by 95 percent since 1980. Scientists warn that
the Pacific leatherback could go extinct within the next 5-30
years unless immediate action is taken to reverse its descent.
"Last Journey" examines
the ecosystem-wide threat caused by longline fishing, as
well as by pollution, poaching and predation. Longline fishing
is deadly not only to sea turtles but kills and maims an
estimated 4.4 million other sharks, porpoises, dolphins,
sea birds, seals, billfish and whales. In fact, the unwanted
catch of sharks by longlining is so high that rising consumer
demand for shark fin soup has fueled the wasteful industry
of shark finning, turning a species once considered a nuisance
into a pot of gold.
Longlining is a prime contributor to the depletion of our
fisheries and exhaustion of our oceans from unsustainable fishing
practices that consume massive resources while wasting as much
as 40 percent of its catch. As a result, recent scientific
studies warn that predatory fish stocks have collapsed to a
mere 10 percent of their pre-industrial levels.
The collapse of our global fisheries threatens the food security
of the 1 billion people who rely on fish as their primary source
of protein. In the South Pacific, the world's largest sources
of tuna and swordfish, local traditional fishing communities
can no longer catch enough fish to feed themselves and are
even being locked out of their traditional fishing grounds.
Impoverished communities are increasingly no longer able to
afford once inexpensive locally caught fish because industrial
foreign vessels have wiped out their fisheries to serve lucrative
export markets in Europe, the US and Japan.
At the same time, seafood consumers in Western countries are
also facing threats from consuming toxic fish. Predatory fish
such as tuna, swordfish and shark caught by longlines are high
in the dangerous neuro-toxin methylmercury, which accumulates
up the food chain by attaching itself to fatty tissue. Sadly,
we are emptying our ocean to catch fish that is too poisonous
to eat, using a technology that is deadly to sea turtles.
Poisonous seafood has stirred extensive controversy in California
where Prop 65 requires that supermarkets post signs at their
fish counters warning pregnant women and nursing mothers of
the danger of methylmercury poisoning. This summer, the Attorney
General of California filed a lawsuit against the three big
tuna canning companies to force them to also warn consumers
about the dangers of methylmercury. Complemented by an on-line
Seafood Watch buyers guide available from the Monterrey Bay
Aquarium, the documentary and website www.gotmercury.org can
be an invaluable asset in teaching nutrition, cooking, and
While California is concerned about the dangers to humans,
international scientists from all over the world have issued
an urgent warning about longlines. To date, 622 scientists
from 54 countries, including former U.S. astronaut Dr. Bernard
A. Harris, Jr. (M.D.), and representatives of 173 non-governmental
organizations from 35 countries have called on the United Nations
to impose a moratorium on longline fishing in the Pacific.
With the rising international concern for these issues, global
action is critical to saving the leatherback from extinction.
The UN can be instrumental in saving the ambassador of the
ocean, a lesson in environmental awareness and social responsibility
that can be taught in our classrooms.#
[Longline fishing refers to the technique that uses as many
as 3,000 baited hooks on monofilament lines up to 60 km to
catch large fish species such as tuna, swordfish and shark.]
Robert Ovetz, Ph.D. is the Save the Leatherback Campaign
Coordinator with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and an
adjunct instructor of Environmental Science at The Art Institute
of California-San Francisco. For more information visit www.seaturtles.org