Against All Odds

The turtle made its way to the open sea after closely examining Newsweek Middle East’s crew.

Sea turtles find it harder to beat mounting challenges in Lebanon

BY Mostapha Raad

She glides by you with such grace, flapping her flipper-like legs effortlessly. Time gets suspended as you watch this magnificent colorful sea creature fly next to you underwater and you find yourself holding your breath despite a full tank of oxygen on your back.

At first, the sea turtle was reluctant to approach us, but after swimming next to it for sometime without bothering it, she seemed to welcome our presence without an inclination to run away. An invisible understanding controls the situation: You may pet me, but don’t hinder my underwater flight, the turtle seemed to tell us.

Sea turtles in Lebanon try their best to hide from preying eyes, as Lebanese fishermen frequently hunt this perennial creature for multiple reasons. Fishermen call this sea creature “Jaya.” They believe that drinking the blood of a sea turtle can cure numerous diseases including asthma and diabetes. Some even believe a sea turtle’s blood is an aphrodisiac. But those turtles are also hunted for their flesh, which is turned into gourmet dishes and soup.

Newsweek Middle East underwater

Youssef Al Jundi, 42, has been monitoring sea turtles’ behavior along the Lebanese Mediterranean coastline for years. He is an accredited diver, a diving instructor and the director of the environment department at the Professional Divers Association in Lebanon.

As he inspected his diving gear while preparing to dive with Newsweek Middle East off the southern Lebanese coast for this report, Jundi pointed that sea turtles’ behavior has changed over the past years.
“A sea turtle used to disappear the moment it saw an air bubble from a diver. However, this shy creature has grown accustomed to divers’ presence and now swims by us without any intimidation,” said the instructor.

Jundi, who makes sure his diving students learn of and understand the nature of the turtles they dive to see, points out that the best place to monitor the turtles is found along South Lebanon’s shoreline, specifically in Al Jamal area in Tyre City.

Of the six types of sea turtles found across the globe, only two types live and breed along the Lebanese coastline and in the Mediterranean in general. Both types are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature in West Asia (IUCN)’s red list for endangered species. They are:
l The Large Head (loggerhead) Turtle, scientifically known as Caretta Caretta, which can grow up to 85 cm in length.

l And The Green Turtle, scientifically known as Chelonia Mydas, which grows up to 120 cm.
The red list is a study developed by the IUCN some 50 years ago urging countries worldwide to implement it. The list includes flora and fauna, both marine and land borne, that are endangered and need protection.

But despite having international regulations that limit the percentage of turtles deliberately killed every year, the Lebanese Environment Ministry lacks the force on the ground to impose sanctions over those who break the law when it comes to killing sea turtles.

Ziad Samaha, a director at IUCN, told Newsweek Middle East that tracking t2he turtles showed they preferred Al Jamal area because it hosts a marine ecosystem that supports a diet preferred by sea turtles including seaweed, crabs, crustaceans, small fish, algae and specific coral.

In 2012, local foundations in cooperation with the Italian Marine Sciences Research Center (Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn of Naples), Tyre Beach Reserve, Tyre City municipality and the Ministry of Environment, managed to install satellite trackers on two male and female sea turtles. One is a loggerhead, and the other is a green turtle. Both creatures are constantly being monitored for study purposes to understand their movement and behavior.

National Day for the protection of turtles
Earlier this year, the Lebanese legislator endorsed ‘May 5’ of every year as the National Day for Sea Turtles in Lebanon.

Hisham Younis, chief of the Green Southerners Foundation, told Newsweek Middle East that May 5 marks the nesting season for sea turtles, which is an annual season running from the beginning of May till end of October.

“The goal is to raise awareness about the importance and the role of sea turtles and how to protect them, especially as they are endangered,” he added.

This constitutes yet another breakthrough following the designation of part of Tyre Beach as a reserve in 1998, and the dedication of nearly a kilometer and a half of that beach as a reserve for sea turtles in 2008 to protect sea turtles, which lay their eggs on that beach.

This announcement wouldn’t have been made had it not been for the efforts of Muna Khalil, who lobbied the Lebanese government between 1999 and 2008 until a sea turtles’ reserve was endorsed by the parliament.

Khalil had discovered the presence of these silent marine animals one night, as a giant female turtle laid its egg on the beach following the Israeli occupation forces withdrew from most of Lebanon in 2000.
The reserve helps cure injured and/or sick turtles, and it has a special room to inspect dead turtles.

Threats to turtles
Aside from natural predators such as rodents, dogfish, seagulls, pelicans, dogs and the red jackal, which attack turtles and their nests, the sea turtles have been threatened by human-related causes including:

  • Getting caught in abandoned fishnets
  • Fishermen hunting turtles
  • Being hit by boats, and jet skis causing fatal injuries which prevent sea turtles from surfacing to breathe and consequently drowning.
  • Pollution which not only kills turtles and their eggs, but also demolishes the turtles’ food habitats.
  • Construction along the beach deprives sea turtles from their nesting grounds. Those construction sites and restaurants by the sea project bright lights, which confuse sea turtles on the lookout for their ideal nesting place. In Lebanon, there are over 200 known turtle nests, but most are jeopardized by construction that chops significant parts of the Lebanese coastline. Samaha said that two years ago the IUCN managed, in cooperation with Tyre City municipality, to order restaurants and resorts’ owners by the beach to dim their lights at night. This is now happening across the Lebanese shoreline. The only problem, according to Samaha, is that some Lebanese people find it difficult to apply the laws and prefer to cite that the economy “is more important than the environment,” as an excuse.
  • Despite media reports that sea turtles choke on nylon bags mistaking them for jellyfish, yet Samaha and other specialists rule out the frequency of such cases and stress that jellyfish are not part of the turtles’ main diet.

“A loggerhead may eat one jellyfish in an entire year,” said Samaha, adding that the sea turtle in the Mediterranean “does not feed on jellyfish as the media portrays it. There are other types of turtles which eat jellyfish, but they don’t thrive in the Mediterranean basin.”
However, Samaha stressed on the fact that sea pollution in Lebanon nowadays, via sewers, factories dumping chemicals, and garbage, have led to the demise of many turtles and the ruining of the marine ecosystem which provides turtles with the necessary dietary elements.

Mating season
Sea turtles become sexually mature between the ages of 25 to 35 years, when the female instantly returns to the beach where it was born to lay its eggs, every year from May to September. The female lays hundreds of eggs reaching up to 120 eggs per nest, according to Hassan Hamza, director of the Tyre Beach Reserve. The eggs hatch after 50 to 55 days with the hatchlings immediately crawling towards the sea driven by instinct. According to scientific studies, nests with a temperature reaching 30 degrees celsius usually produce female hatchlings, whereas a drop in temperature to 25 degrees may produce male hatchlings. This is important as global warming aids female sea turtles to emerge, outnumbering the males.

But regardless which gender hatches, those who survive the impediments are what count.

“Of the thousands of sea turtles that hatch, only 1 percent may be able to make it alive if they were not given proper attention,” said Hamza. Fearing natural as well as human-imposed dangers, local and international foundations such as IUCN among others, carefully watch and help protect the nests in an attempt to aid some 80 percent of the hatchlings to survive.

Local and international legislation
Turtles on the Lebanese beaches are considered endangered and are protected by international agreements that ban the killing of those peaceful creatures. Though the Lebanese government, through the ministries of agriculture and environment, tries to enact those legislations, and attempts at regulating hunting sea turtles, yet it is a difficult task as it has no judicial police to impose sanctions on violators.

Lebanon is a signatory to a number of international agreements to protect marine life and sea turtles, including: the Barcelona Convention and its protocols signed in 1976; the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), signed in 1992 and ratified in 1994; the United Nations Convention on Marine law signed in 1982; the UNESCO Convention on the protection of cultural and natural diversity, ratified in 1990.

Hamza said that there is a government inclination towards declaring Naqoura’s beach as a natural reserve. Should that happen, it will win over some 40 km of protected shoreline and “will be a great achievement for Lebanon.”

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