Hawksbill Turtle Threats

Like all sea turtles, hawksbills face a multitude of threats as a result of human activities. The cause of their decline continues to be driven by the demand for their shell, however a host of other dangers also put them at serious risk. Global hawksbill populations have declined by a staggering 85% in the last century and estimates suggest there are as few as 15,000 - 20,000 nesting female hawksbills worldwide, a fraction of their population just a few decades ago.

In addition to the illegal trade of their shell, hawksbills face entanglement and capture in fishing gear, degradation of nesting and foraging habitat, the poaching of their meat and eggs for consumption, marine pollution and debris, coastal development, and other threats that put them at risk throughout their geographic range. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List categorizes hawksbills as Critically Endangered and decreasing globally. In the United States they are listed as Endangered.

Exploitation - Illegal Harvest

Though hawksbill sea turtles are protected by law in most countries, the illegal harvest (also called poaching) and trade of their parts continues. Often illegal activities take place in remote areas making enforcement nearly impossible. In addition to lack of enforcement, lack of public awareness is also problematic, and unknowing tourists to these areas often return home from vacation with ‘tortoiseshell’ trinkets crafted from the shell of hawksbills. See our page on Turtleshell Trade for more about the illegal trafficking of hawksbill shell.

In some countries sea turtle meat and eggs are considered a delicacy and, particularly in Latin America, the harvest of their eggs is an important source of protein and income for local people in some places. In other regions, hawksbill shells and skins are used for ornamental and ceremonial purposes. Some good news: worldwide, many conservation programs are underway implementing projects which bring more income to local communities in ecotourism dollars than they would receive from the harvest of sea turtles, essentially turning ‘poachers’ into conservationists.

Warming, Melting, Rising - Changing Climate

In some tropical regions, particularly in the Caribbean, hawksbills rely on coral reefs for finding prey and taking shelter. As our planet warms and ocean temperatures rise causing corals to bleach, the sea turtles that call reefs home are directly affected. Warming oceans also mean altered currents and changing distribution and abundance of prey species forcing animals to alter their movements in order to find food. Because the gender of sea turtle hatchlings is temperature dependent, as temperatures rise and beaches become hotter, warmer sands alter the number of males and females being born, throwing natural sex ratios out of balance. 

A more evident threat is rising sea level from the melting of polar ice which contributes to the loss of beach and sea turtle nesting habitat. Weather extremes, also linked to climate change, mean more frequent and severe storms which alter nesting beaches, cause beach erosion, and inundate, or flood, sea turtle nests with seawater which can result in the loss of many nests along entire stretches of beach during severe weather events such as tropical storms and hurricanes.

Shrinking Habitat - Coastal Development

Half of the world’s human population lives on or within 100 miles of a coastline and that means less space and more dangers for sea turtles. Coastal activities like beach renourishment, seawall construction, and nearshore dredging and oil platform construction pose obstacles and risks to sea turtles, and coastal development contributes to the pollution of sea turtle habitat from runoff, wastewater discharge, and oil spills. Collisions with boats and personal watercraft are also responsible for large numbers of sea turtle injuries and deaths each year.

As more and more people inhabit coastal areas and beachfront development of homes, hotels, restaurants, and roads increases, turtles have a harder time finding suitable nesting habitat. Sea turtles require dark, undisturbed beaches to come ashore and lay their eggs, and sea turtle hatchlings require the same in order to safely navigate their way out of the nest and down the beach to the ocean. Development not only crowds out female sea turtles causing them to abandon their preferred nesting beaches, but beachfront lighting can disorient hatchlings, leading them away from the water and toward artificial light which usually leads to their demise. This is a problem especially for hawksbills, who tend to nest much higher up the beach than other sea turtle species.

Additional Resources:

IUCN Red List for hawksbills


Photos: Neil Ever Osborne, C. S. Rogers