Sea turtles are the guardians of the Tunisian marine environment

A / Tunisia / Wajdan Al-Jallasi

Sea turtles have lived in the oceans for millions of years. However, their life is not a long, calm river.

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

In fact, six of the seven sea turtles have been classified as endangered, endangered, or endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

World Turtle Day, which is celebrated on May 23 every year, is an opportunity to remember that in the field of conservation of this species of reptiles, Tunisia exists, not only through the two sea turtle rescue centers, unique on the shore of the southern Mediterranean​​ , but also the research and commitment of environmental professionals, activists, and activists.

In this context, the Tunisian researcher specializing in sea turtles, Hamid Mallat, informs us about the importance of these reptiles in the marine ecosystem, the dangers that burden them, and the Tunisia action plan to preserve them.

growing threats

There are seven species of sea turtles in the world, three of which live in the Mediterranean: the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) and the green turtle (Chelonia mydas). These migratory reptiles play a major role in marine and coastal ecosystems as well as in the biodiversity of species.

Once they are exposed to a problem (disease, threat, pollution, etc.), the entire ecosystem becomes at risk, indirectly affecting humans.

Hamid Mallat explained, during an interview with Anadolu Agency, that the dangers to which these reptiles are exposed are mainly divided into two categories: Natural threats that fall within the balance of the ecosystem. Young turtles and the fetuses born in their eggs are vulnerable to predators. Animals that feed on turtles include different types of birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish.

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

Such is the case with turtles. They take plastic bags of 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 that are dwindling. The development of the coasts and the exploitation of the beaches par excellence, and the tourism and urban projects deprive sea turtles of their habitat on the coasts.

“In Cheba, Mahdia Governorate, we are in the process of losing a nesting site since the development of the Corniche project. The street lights pointing at the beach confuse the baby turtles who, instead of sailing toward the light reflected by the stars on the water, head with artificial city lights toward the road. In the morning, we find baby turtles smashed under the wheels of cars,” our expert laments.

Another factor that threatens these migratory reptiles is by-catch. They often find themselves stuck in devices such as drift nets, long lines, or straight nets.

“The fisherman is the main core of turtle conservation. Recognizing the role they can play, we have bet on continuous training of fishermen in the conservation of this endangered species. We help them learn best practices for turtle rescue, because we want to have marine biologists who know how to act In case of danger ”, confirms our interlocutor.

In the same context, Hamed Mallat pointed out that despite the numerous regulatory texts related to the general protection of sea turtles at the national and international levels, which strictly prohibit the hunting and marketing of these endangered species, they are victims of overfishing.

Some give themselves up to the game of the illegal trade in wild species, including sea turtles, for their meat, their shells, and even for their purported aphrodisiac virtues.

“Thanks to the great wave of awareness in recent years, there are fewer and fewer such 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.

At a time when the world is trying to shed light on the many problems associated with climate change and biodiversity loss, sea turtles are also facing major disruptions caused by the warming of their aquatic world.

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

In addition, higher temperatures have effects on the sex of sea turtles. In fact, global warming is causing air and sea temperatures to rise resulting in more female offspring.

Satisfactory evaluation of Tunisia on the side of the turtle bed

In Tunisia there are major sites of sea turtles, in particular in the Gulf of Gabes, which are of particular interest in the Mediterranean, not only for “sailors of antiquity”, but also for other marine species.

“The Gulf of Gabes, shallow, warm and rich in food, is essential to the Tunisian marine environment,” asserts a Tunisian ecologist who mentions that there are two nesting sites for turtles. There are stable sites such as Quriyat (with 30 to 40 nests) and other irregular sites such as Hammamet, Kelibia, or even Shatt Zuwara in Beja.

In this regard, it should be noted that on the entire southern coast of the Mediterranean, only Tunisia, since 2004, has benefited from the Sea Turtle Care and Rescue Center within the National Institute of Marine Science and Technology (NSTM) in Monastir.

This institution performs autopsies on dead turtles to determine the cause of death and provides care for turtles stranded alive or returned in case of accidental captivity.

The “SeaTuMed” network was also launched in Tunisia. Her work focuses on protecting sea turtles off the Tunisian coast. Of the 50 turtle rescue centers in the Mediterranean, only two are located on the southern shore of Monastir and Sfax in Tunisia.

In response to a question about the measures taken to protect turtles, Hamid Mallat said that Tunisia has drawn up a national action plan with different actors and at different levels, which includes in particular the establishment of associations, rescue centers, and the popularization of scientific discourse. Law enforcement, communication, awareness raising, learning of good practices, and development of scientific research.

At the legislative level, Tunisia is working to harmonize its national legislation with international obligations and provisions, particularly with regard to mitigating the interaction between fisheries and turtles, illegal trade and protecting nesting sites.

“We are already implementing our action plan. Tunisia is very advanced in the conservation of sea turtles. But this does not mean that we will stop our struggle. We will continue to make more efforts to protect our marine environment,” we concluded in this regard.

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