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“Unethical” revelations that warrant a change in procedures
To recap, it arose from a video footage showing a group of divers tying up a marine turtle with a rope and thereafter propelling the turtle up to the surface with a lift bag. To which a group of professional divers and researchers voiced their concerns over this method used by researchers and volunteers, as it is essentially animal cruelty. So just imagine that you are the said turtle in question, would you like to be in that compromising situation?
Truth be told, we have no qualms with turtle tagging and research. Animal tagging have been conducted by scientists, conservationists, researchers to better understand the migratory patterns, distribution, and life cycles of these animals. With knowledge, humans are able to learn how to ideally monitor and manage the conservation of these animals.
But the issue we have is the treatment of these animals in the tagging process.
**Disclaimer: We’re not marine biologists or researchers… heck, we have not even participated in any turtle tagging event. Simply because we personally prefer to observe the turtles in their natural habitat, and let the scientists do their thing. Also, being professional divers doesn’t mean we know how to handle turtles. We’re merely commenting based on our scuba diving knowledge and as a basic human being**
Number 1: The rope
If a part of your body were tied to a rope and being yanked, would you not feel pain or develop an injury? In most cases, yes. So imagine that helpless turtle. Nuff said. If a rope is absolutely necessary, wouldn’t it be more humane to hoist/lift it up gently?
Number 2: Turtles and decompression sickness
While some have claimed that turtles are biologically different than humans, and therefore are not as risk of developing decompression sickness. A quick search on the inter-web would point you to research papers indicating that turtles are susceptible to the bends. So there you have it, claims vs research papers.
Death from the bends may not be immediate, but it does have an effect on the turtles. In less serious cases, it could impact the way they move, feed, and reproduce. Don’t know if this fella below is suffering from the bends, but its outlook sure looks grim. 🙁
Number 3: Scrubbing the turtle’s carapace as part of the tagging process
This is honestly a bit of a mixed reaction, but one that we honestly do not have a firm opinion on as we’re not experts in turtle biology or neurology. Contrary to popular beliefs, a turtle does not live in a shell. In fact, it’s spinal column and ribs are fully fused to the carapace (top “shell”), and it does not have scales. It’s actually called scutes which are made of keratin, much like our fingernails.
Having said that, turtles are said to be able to feel things that come in contact with their shells because they have nerve endings. Some studies have shown that they cannot feel pain as they do not have those type of nerve endings, but other studies apparently refuted the claims mentioning that turtles do possess pain receptors on their shells (called nociceptors). So yeah, it seems that we’re in a bit of a pickle on this subject. Please don’t ask us why and how the studies are done. It’s kinda hard to ask a turtle if something hurts. Any experts in the field care to explain?
On the flip side, research also suggests that abrasions and shell lesions can invite bacteria and fungi. Which in turn may penetrate through the shell resulting in ulcerations and nasty infections. And you’ve probably guessed it by now, since the shell is fused to the body, this may advance into internal organ infections. So pain or no pain, perhaps that question is irrelevant.
But isn’t flipper tagging the most common type of tagging? Why the need to scrub its shell… unless the researchers are deploying satellite tags, but aren’t satellite tags affixed by epoxy, resin or a harness? And if shell scrubbing is a means of identifying the turtle, what’s the tag for?
Number 4: The stress caused to the turtles
Some may argue that the beneficial knowledge gained from studying these creatures would appear to merit the mild disturbances it caused. Sure. Assuming it’s genuinely a mild disturbance.
Scientists have long believed that the survivability of certain animals depends on its ability to secrete the stress hormone corticosterone. Under stressful conditions, corticosterone functions like a tap by controlling how the body expands energy during an emergency. It’s similar to the “fight or flight” responses to stress and is similar to cortisol in humans. But corticosterone can be lethal if the “tap” is not turned off.
During high levels of stress, if the turtles are unable to turn off its stress response, this produces elevated corticosterone levels. In this condition, the turtle has depleted its protein reserves that could be processed into energy during a stressful event. In a weakened condition, its ability to move efficiently may be hindered which increases its vulnerability to predators, and even result in subsequent starvation.
Professional divers in the area have claimed that turtles are not that friendly anymore, and have even observed a decline in numbers (ah, we wonder why). We certainly wouldn’t want a situation where the turtles leave the area en masse.
Did you know that marine turtles are one of Malaysia’s national heritage, and according to WWF.org, Malaysia is blessed with 4 out of the 7 known species of marine turtles in the world? The global status according to IUCN Red List at the point of writing is, Olive Ridley (Vulnerable); Leatherback Turtles (Vulnerable – but according to the WWF is facing extinction in Malaysia); Green Turtles (Endangered); Hawksbill (Critically Endangered).
This begs a few pressing questions:
What is the proper way to tag a turtle?
Flipper tagging, satellite tagging, passive integrated transponder tagging… these are some examples of tagging methods used. We would like to believe that the proper way to tag will be determined by the field experts and also depending on the type of study they are conducting. Perhaps consideration could be made to use photo identification and laser photogrammetry techniques if movement monitoring isn’t part of the research? It’s a tested method and proven to be far less invasive.
Who can teach/guide the researchers and volunteers to do it the right way?
The yearly turtle tagging program is believed to be conducted alongside scientists and researchers, including the local university. If the video depicts their standard procedures, perhaps it’s high time for a re-evaluation.
At the point of writing, we were informed that the Wildlife Department will soon be having a round table discussion on the turtle tagging programs with the parties involved. So let’s hope for a positive outcome.
Should you still participate in turtle tagging programs?
“Voluntourism” as some would put it. To each their own. Go for it if it’s something that piques your interest. But before signing up, you may want to ask about the program’s objectives, who are the organizers, what is your role, how is the tagging performed, what are the long terms benefits and follow up measures, and how will this deepen your understanding of turtles. Tagging for no defined reasons purely for “tourism” non-educational purposes should be avoided.
Turtles are already threatened by illegal poaching, being a result of bycatches from commercial fishing activities, ghost nets, boat propellers, climate change, pollution… We certainly wouldn’t want research and tagging initiatives being a threat, having believed that its intentions are genuinely for the turtles’ betterment.
Check this video out from WWF on sea turtle tagging in Colombia.
Other ways you can help
Do not encourage the turtle trade. Turtle eggs are considered as delicacies, their meat consumed, and their shells used as decoration and fashion accessories. Just… please don’t.
Broaden your knowledge by supporting and engaging with marine conservation projects.
See a turtle during your diving vacation? Don’t touch or harass them. Just sit back, relax, and observe them from a respectable distance.
Pass the message to your family, friends, colleagues. Let it be known about the challenges turtles and marine animals face so that we could make a difference together.
Needless to say… avoid single-use plastics such as straws, plastic utensils, plastic bags, and littering. We all know by now that pollution is a threat to the marine ecosystem.
What we are doing to the environment is a mirror reflection on what we’re doing to ourselves and to one another. We need to stand united in conserving, protecting, and enhancing our biodiversity for the present and future generations. Every little helps.
This article is written using almost 100% recycled words with various research sources from the inter-web, Semporna Professional Divers Association (SPDA), correspondences with resident divers in Semporna/Mabul, and our friends at ND Divers who are active in local based community programs including ocean cleanups and marine life conservation.
Have you participated in any turtle tagging programs? We’d love to hear your thoughts.