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Saving the turtles: It’s not just about plastic

by Chris Murphy (he/they)

contributing writer



illustration by Ella Windner (she/her)

Back in 2016, you’ll probably remember a new movement starting: The banning of plastic straws and other single-use plastics. One of the biggest slogans of this movement was “save the turtles,” usually by buying a tote bag, Hydro Flask or reusable straw. But how much can reducing plastic waste really help save sea turtles? Conservation issues are always more complex than how they’re presented to the public. I don’t think this is a bad thing; the finer details of ecology aren’t that interesting to everyone. As an environmental science student I love these topics – but I’m painfully aware of how much scientific jargon and statistics can turn people off. Microplastic pollution in the ocean is a major issue, and I’m glad that sea turtles have been a driver for reducing the amount of plastics we use day to day, but it’s also obvious to me that this narrative doesn’t benefit the climate, the public or the turtles. Because it isn’t just plastics that are harming sea turtles, it’s the climate crisis itself.

Conservationists basically want there to be as much opportunity for turtles to fuck and make babies as possible.

Turtle embryos go through a process that biologists call, ‘temperature dependent sex determination’. This means the turtle’s sex (after it has hatched) is determined by the temperature of the environment the egg is in. At higher temperatures (usually above 30°C) more females hatch, at lower temperatures (usually under 29°C) more males hatch. In one key nesting ground north of the Great Barrier Reef, according to research published in PubMed in 2018, the juvenile sea turtles are over 99% female. At another nesting ground in the Florida Keys no male babies have been found since 2018, according to Bette Zirklebech, manager of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon City.


Why is this a problem? Because fundamentally, wildlife conservation is a breeding contest. Conservationists basically want there to be as much opportunity for turtles to fuck and make babies as possible. With no fewer opportunities for turtles to make babies. Though I’m not discounting the chances of cute lesbian turtle couples, turtles will still go extinct if they can’t even find a sperm donor.


Sea turtles can live for over 70 years, and the female doesn’t reach sexual maturity until the ages of 25 to 30, so that means we probably are not going to see the devastating effects of climate change on turtle populations for several decades. This makes it a slow moving problem that is much easier to ignore.


Sea turtle conservation is a complicated issue, so is climate change. But people don’t need to understand every aspect of a problem to care about it. Sometimes these things need to be simplified to get people interested, but often it just makes people feel guilty. It’s yet another example of us being told that we’re the ones killing the environment. For example: it’s your fault for using a plastic straw, not the company that made them in the first place. Or: it’s your trash that is hurting these turtles, not the billions of tons of CO² that corporations pump into the atmosphere every year. I think there’s a reason the narrative was “your plastic waste is hurting turtles” and not “climate change means that these animals could go extinct.”


Sea turtles can live for over 70 years, and the female doesn’t reach sexual maturity until the ages of 25 to 30, so that means we probably are not going to see the devastating effects of climate change on turtle populations for several decades. This makes it a slow moving problem that is much easier to ignore.

There are some ways that scientists and conservationists are trying to help the situation. Shading sea turtle nests with temporary covers has been shown to help more males be born, but it isn't a practical long-term solution. There are over 1,300 nesting beaches in the world, many of them in remote and hard-to-reach areas. As the climate crisis worsens, options for helping turtles will only become more expensive and impractical. Really, there are no easy solutions to this issue. The only thing that will “save the turtles” is immediate and radical action to reduce carbon emissions globally and avoid the worst consequences of climate change. It’s something to think about the next time a paper straw disintegrates into your morning iced coffee.

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