Photo: a sea turtle
Eating sea turtles can be dangerous to humans.

Photograph by Jeffrey Brown

Catherine Clarke Fox

Sea turtles have been on Earth for millions of years, but they are in danger of going extinct. The main threat to them is people who kill them for food, according to Dr. Wallace J. Nichols of the California Academy of Sciences and The Ocean Conservancy.

But the latest news may slow turtle hunting: Dr. Nichols and other scientists have found that sea turtles (family Cheloniidae) absorb a lot of pollution from the ocean, including pesticides and heavy metals like mercury and cadmium. These toxins are health hazards for both turtles and humans and can cause permanent damage to their bodies. Sea turtles also carry the bacteria salmonella, which can cause severe diarrhea in people. Research shows that many people get sick and even die from eating sea turtle meat.

If you’re from the United States, chances are you haven’t had sea turtle on your dinner plate. “My daughter is four, and she thinks eating sea turtles is gross,” says Nichols. Besides, all seven species are protected by the United States Endangered Species Act, which makes it illegal to harm or kill these amazing animals. “But there are kids–-and adults—around the world who do still eat them,” explains Nichols. “Our first goal was to save turtles; now we want to save people too.”

He wants to get the word out to people who still think turtle steaks or soup make good eating. And he wants people to understand a bigger message: that we should protect the oceans. “The health of the ocean, the health of the animals in the ocean, and our own health are all connected. For a long time we didn’t really make those connections,” explains Nichols. “Now it’s clear that a clean ocean is really good for us too because of the food we eat from there.”

Fast Facts

  • There are seven species of sea turtles.
  • Most sea turtles live 15-20 years, and some may live to be 80.
  • Their favorite foods include jellyfish, algae, snails, and seaweed.
  • Sea turtles live mostly in the water, coming ashore to lay their eggs and return to the water. With people taking over beaches around the world, sea turtles are having a hard time finding safe spots to lay their eggs.
  • Many sea turtles die when they get tangled in fishing nets or eat things like plastic bags that probably look like jellyfish to them.

Text by Catherine Clarke Fox