This is the fifth and final entry in a series of eyewitness reports from Niak Sian Koh, who has been volunteering at a sea turtle conservation project on Tioman Island, Malaysia. Despite the island’s remote Pacific Ocean location, its sea turtles are threatened by marine plastic pollution, oil spills, and ocean acidification. Read her first report here, her second report here, her third report here, and her fourth report here.

Spending a week on a remote tropical island made it easy to forget about the outside world. The physical separation from the mainland disconnected me mentally from the digital distractions of everyday life, and shifted my attention to the present.

I focused on the task at hand, what was happening right in front of me. There was a new issue to deal with every day: Diving over pockets of bleached out corals, rescuing a distressed sea turtle with a stomach full of plastic, scurrying to pick up tarballs on the shore before they wash out again with the ocean current.

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Volunteers with the Juara Turtle Project monitor coral reef conditions in Juara Bay, Tioman Island. (Credit: Juara Turtle Project)

Tioman Island is so remote that it is tempting to think that the occurrences were local incidents, happening only on this little bit of land off the coast of Malaysia.

Except they aren’t. If anything, the fact that I witnessed each of these problems during just one week of volunteer work on Tioman Island is proof of how much our activities have become a significant threat to marine life.

The goal of SDG14 is to restore and conserve ocean health, while also improving the food security and livelihoods of people and communities in developing nations. Sea turtles may not seem to have a direct relationship to these goals. But as keystone species with a range that circles the globe, their condition offers a clue to the state of marine ecosystems—and six of the seven sea turtle species are at significant risk of extinction.

When sea turtles are doing well, it’s a sign that we are achieving the targets encompassed in SDG14. Take Target 14.1, which aims to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds.” This one’s pretty straightforward: less plastic pollution in the ocean means fewer plastic bags and more jellyfish ending up in a sea turtle’s stomach, and fewer turtles injured or killed by entanglement in abandoned fishing line. Healthy populations of sea turtles keep jellyfish numbers in check, which helps to balance marine food webs and maintain healthy sea grass beds and coral reefs. These in turn provide habitat for sea turtles and other, diverse forms of marine life.

Or what about Target 14.3, “minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification”? Oceans absorb about a quarter of the carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere every year. Rising greenhouse gas concentrations have caused a considerable increase in absorbed carbon dioxide, and this is beginning to shift the ocean’s delicate chemistry in some areas, such as coral reefs. As I learned early on in my week of field work, no coral reefs mean no habitat for marine life, including sea turtles.

Let’s do one more: Target 14.5, which aims to “conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas.” Increasing the legislative scope for protected areas, and then effectively implementing and enforcing those MPAs, can help prevent industrial activities like oil and gas mining taking a heavy toll on marine life, such as oil spills near sea turtle nesting beaches.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Achieving each and every one of the targets under SDG14 is vital for restoring our marine ecosystems back to healthy conditions in which sea turtles and all other marine life—as well as we humans—can thrive.

To address this ocean crisis, a combination of solutions is needed at local and global, personal and national levels. Help is needed within all areas of expertise, whether it is encouraging your government to improve waste management policies, inventing environmentally-friendly alternatives to plastic packaging, or simply picking up trash off a beach.

Volunteering with the Juara Turtle Project (JTP) showed me how much my personal decisions about plastic matter. Even if I recycle, or make sure my trash is properly disposed of in a bin, there is a chance of that plastic leaking out somewhere along the waste supply chain, out into the oceans. Just as prevention is the most effective way of avoiding the harms of an oil spill, avoiding plastic usage at the source means that a little less plastic may leak out.

Long story short, the diminishing population of sea turtles and other marine keystone species represents a worrying indicator of the state of our oceans. Luckily enough, as the Juara Turtle Project points out, “People are the cause for most environmental issues these days; conveniently, people are also the solution for resolving these imbalances.”

I’ll finish by offering suggestions of what we can do to help sea turtles survive:

1. When staying at beachfront developments, encourage them to use turtle-friendly lighting. Lights on nesting beaches should be angled towards the ground, away from the beach or ideally turned off at night.

2. During nesting season, walk the beach without a flashlight to avoid frightening female turtles. If you must use a light, use one with a red bulb or red filter.

3. Reduce your plastic usage and pick up any litter that you see along the beach. Every piece of litter removed is one that will not end up in an unfortunate sea turtle’s stomach.

4. If you decide that being part of the solution includes volunteering at the Juara Turtle Project, you can get more information here on how to do that.

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A sign on Tioman Island reminds tourists that cigarette butts don’t belong on beaches. (Credit: Niak Sian Koh)