Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Atlantic Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) hatchling entering ocean
With the end of non-essential work and reduced travel, sea turtle conservation efforts have been curtailed by coronavirus shutdowns. Photo by Shane P. White/Minden Pictures

COVID-19 Is Not All Good for Wildlife

Empty beaches are both a boon and a curse for endangered sea turtles.

Authored by

by Brian Owens

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Deer in Japanese subways, goats taking over a Welsh village. Since most people started staying at home to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet has been full of stories about how “nature is healing”; how the temporary absence of humans is giving wildlife the time and space to roam. So it’s logical to assume that the closure of many beaches around the world would be a great benefit to nesting sea turtles. But the reality is more complicated.

“In general, less activity can be seen as a good thing,” says Todd Steiner, executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN). “But it’s a two-edged sword.”

The fewer people there are on a beach, the less chance there is for the turtles to be disturbed, he says. But beach closures have also disrupted conservation projects.

TIRN, for example, usually enlists more than 300 volunteers to monitor hundreds of kilometers of beaches in Texas. Twice a day during nesting season they are out looking for the nests of critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Every nest they find is moved to a hatching facility to maximize the number of baby turtles that can be returned to the ocean.

“For critically endangered species where every turtle counts, it’s vital that every egg be protected,” Steiner says. “But those programs are interrupted; we’re not able to get on the beaches.”

Some minimal activity on the project will continue, he says. The organization’s two full-time staff in the area are still allowed to access some beaches once a week, but their ability to find and transport the eggs has been greatly curtailed.

And just because beaches are closed doesn’t mean everyone is staying away. Poachers, he says, are unlikely to respect the closure orders. “If you’re desperate and need the income, you’ll still be out there,” he says.

However, the rangers and volunteers who guard against them are no longer present.

Even for species that don’t require a direct helping hand, beach closures can still hamper efforts to monitor and protect them, says Allen Foley, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“The turtles might be happier because they don’t have to share the beach, but we’re a bit blind as to what’s going on and will be slow in response to any threats,” he says.

The biggest hit to turtle conservation, however, is financial. Many conservation groups, especially those in the developing world, depend heavily on labor and money from volunteers to keep their programs going. The Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Association in Guatemala, for example, gets half of its budget through veterinary training courses and fees paid by volunteers—income that has almost completely dried up because of travel bans related to the pandemic.

“It’s completely shut down our volunteer program,” says Colum Muccio, the association’s development director. “The only volunteers we have now are the ones who are stuck here.”

The association is involved in wildlife rescue efforts throughout the country, including turtle conservation on the Pacific coast. It runs beach patrols to protect nests and collects eggs from people who harvest them. Harvesting the eggs of non-threatened olive ridley sea turtles is legal in Guatemala, as long as 20 percent of the eggs are donated to a hatchery. Since the nesting season has not yet started in earnest, Muccio says they haven’t yet seen what effect the pandemic will have on egg collection. But the loss of the money and work from volunteers, and of donations from larger institutions like zoos, has already done lasting damage.

“We have a couple months of reserves, but I’m not sure what we’ll do after that,” he says. The organization has launched a crowdfunding effort, but Muccio says it is unlikely to be enough.

To help support organizations like Muccio’s, TIRN and the American nonprofit SEE Turtles have launched an online competition offering grants to help them stay afloat. On May 4, people could start voting for a variety of different organizations around the world. Whichever group receives the most votes will get US $5,000, with one other group randomly chosen to receive $1,000. More than 20 groups have signed up to take part. The idea, says Steiner, is not only to provide funds to two deserving groups, but to highlight all of the organizations facing problems.

“The contest aims to get people involved and keep them active in conservation in some limited way,” he says, “so they can hear about projects that will hopefully continue in the future.”

Voting ends on June 1, and the winners will be announced June 5.