Marine turtles have lived in the oceans for over 100 million years. They are an integral part of the traditional culture of many coastal indigenous peoples throughout the world.
Marine turtles migrate long distances between their feeding grounds and nesting sites. They have a large shell called a carapace, four strong, paddle-like flippers and like all reptiles, lungs for breathing air. The characteristic beak-like mouth is used to shear or crush food.
All marine turtle species are experiencing serious threats to their survival. The main threats are pollution and changes to important turtle habitats, especially coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangrove forests and nesting beaches. Other threats include accidental drowning in fishing gear, over-harvesting of turtles and eggs, and predation of eggs and hatchlings by foxes, feral pigs, dogs and goannas.
Species found in Australia
There are only a few large nesting populations of the green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles left in the world. Australia has some of the largest marine turtle nesting areas in the Indo-Pacific region and has the only nesting populations of the flatback turtle.
Of the seven species of marine turtles in the world, six occur in Australian waters:
- Flatback turtle (Natator depressus)
- Green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
- Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
- Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
- Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta)
- Olive Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea)
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
In Australia, all six species of marine turtles that occur in our waters are protected under the Australian Government's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and various State and Northern Territory legislation.
The leatherback, loggerhead and olive ridley turtle are each listed as endangered under the EPBC Act which means that these species may become extinct if the threats to their survival continue.
The green, hawksbill and flatback turtle are each listed as vulnerable which means that they may become endangered if threats continue.
Turtles may be legally hunted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people under section 211 of the Native Title Act 1993 for personal, domestic or non commercial communal needs.
Recovery Plan for Marine Turtles in Australia
The national Recovery Plan for Marine Turtles in Australia was jointly made with the New South Wales and Queensland Environment Ministers in May 2017. The Recovery Plan provides for research and management actions necessary to stop the decline and support the recovery of marine turtles so that their chances of long-term survival in nature are maximised.
Marine turtles are recognised internationally as species of conservation concern. The six species found in Australia are listed in the 2000 IUCN (World Conservation Union) Red List of Threatened Animals.
All marine turtle species occurring in Australian waters are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In addition, all marine turtles occurring in the Indo-Pacific region are a priority for conservation under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS, also known as the Bonn Convention). The flatback turtle is listed on Appendix II of the CMS and the other species are listed on both Appendices I and II. Australia is also a signatory to the CMS Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Marine Turtles and their Habitats of the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia (IOSEA MoU). The MoU is designed to facilitate national level and transboundary actions that will lead to the conservation of turtle populations and their habitats.
Indigenous culture and marine turtles
Marine turtles have important cultural and social values for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in coastal areas of northern Australia. Hunting these species is important for maintaining family relations (kinship) and social structure, has important ceremonial and community purposes and also provides valuable protein in regions where fresh food is expensive and difficult to obtain.
Indigenous communities are working collaboratively with government agencies and scientists to develop and implement community-based management for sustainable hunting of marine turtles. This work is primary supported through the Australian Government's Caring for Our Country and Working on Country programs.
Under the Native Title Act 1993, Traditional Owners have the right to take marine resources, including hunting of marine turtles for personal, domestic or non-commercial communal needs and in exercise and enjoyment of their native title rights and interests.
Books and reports
- Identifying the links between nesting and foraging grounds for the Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) sea turtles in northern Australia - Project final report - July 2007
- Improving survivorship of the nests of the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles - the reductions of feral dog numbers from northern beaches on Melville Island, Tiwi Islands, NT - May 2004
- Marine Turtles of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area - 2001
- National Dugong and Turtle Protection Plan 2014-2017 - 2015
- Pilot study of Loggerhead Turtles in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area: Movements and community based conservation - November 2004
- Population genetics of Southeast Asian and Western Pacific green turtles, Chelonia mydas - 2002
- Protected Marine Species Identification Guide - factsheets on marine protected species
- Recovery plan for marine turtles in Australia - 2017
- Research on the impact of marine debris on marine turtle survival and behaviour: North east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia - April 2009
- Sea Turtle conservation and education on the Tiwi Islands - August 2007
- Sustainable harvest of marine turtles and dugongs in Australia - 2005