Sea turtles, also called sea turtles, have been classified as endangered species by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund). On its official website, the WWF said that “nearly all sea turtle species are now classified as endangered, with three of the seven existing species being critically endangered”. [i].
Studies conducted by MEDASSET also revealed that “132,000 sea turtles are caught accidentally, resulting in 44,000 deaths per year for all gears combined” [ii].
The reasons for their extinction vary from human activity (fishing, killing, pollution, etc.) to environmental ones (climate change, plastic waste, etc.).
Therefore, several organizations, projects and programs have been initiated in order to raise awareness about sea turtles, protect them and reduce the dangers they face around the world. Tunisia is active in this cause and has participated in the launch of various programs to help protect sea turtles in the Mediterranean. One such program is SeaTuMed. It was initiated by the WWF in partnership with various local organizations working for the protection of sea turtles.
In order to learn more about the program, we conducted an interview with the local coordinator of SeaTuMed to have more information about their work and their achievements in Tunisia.
Please introduce yourself and what is your position in the SeaTuMed program.
Ghada Elouaer is a 23-year-old medical student and works as the local coordinator of SeaTuMed and represents the organization “Association El-Fell pour l’environnement à Hammam Sousse”.
The SeaTuMed program works on the conservation of sea turtles in the Mediterranean under the leadership of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund). He focused on “Raise awareness, organize camps, build communities of environmental activists in Sousse. We started in Sousse, but expanded to reach the entire Sahel region as well as the whole country; and we plan to extend it to all of North Africa.
SeaTuMed works for the protection of sea turtles in the Mediterranean. Could you give us some details?
The term “SeaTuMed” is an acronym for “Sea Turtles in the Mediterranean” and it can be read as “Si tu m’aide” which means “if you can help”. We wanted the term to sound like a call for help from sea turtles trying to survive here in Tunisia.
The program started in 2019 and ended in 2021. It was launched by WWF Tunisia in collaboration with MAVA, A BUDDY, CAR SPA, AVFA and INMC. The program also included 15 other local associations in Tunisia such as ELFell Association in Sousse, Ajem to Djerbaand “Our Big Blue(Our Big Blue). The program has officially ended; but that left behind the built-in awareness and workshops that we did and still do.”
Sea turtles are classified as keystone species. What does this mean and why is it important?
“Sea turtles are prehistoric creatures that have existed since the Cretaceous. They are wonders that have survived for millions of years while retaining their anatomy and dynamics.
Sea turtles are known as keystone species because they are bio-indicators. This means that their ecosystem, their diet and the things they eat (plastic and algae) allow researchers to learn about the health of our oceans and seas. They help us answer the following questions “Is the ocean clean? Is it bad? How bad is the pollution there? How bad is plastic pollution in our seas? How’s the seaweed? Additionally, sea turtles contribute to tourism and the advancement of a country’s economic infrastructure. Their conservation is essential because they are predators that feed on jellyfish. Thus, their extinction would lead to the deterioration of the ecosystem.
What are the possible solutions you have worked on and the activities you have carried out so far?
“When working on SeaTuMed, the main audience we tried to reach were anglers, children and policy makers. In dealing with anglers and children, we focused on raising awareness and suggesting alternatives. As for policymakers, we focused on examining policies related to the economic and strategic impacts of sea turtle conservation.
As our work was mainly oriented towards raising awareness, we did many workshops in schools, main councils, other associations, as well as in different fishermen’s union centres. Throughout the show, we learned that sea turtles were harming Tunisian fishermen. So, in revenge, the fishermen hunted them down, killed them and/or sold them. Therefore, we wanted to break this cycle through our work on SeaTuMed as well as through our organization El-Fell Association in Sousse.
We started by creating a network of local associations in Sousse concerned with the conservation of sea turtles, under the name of “Sea Turtles Ambassadors”. It included many motivated young people, high school students and anyone who wanted to join the fight. We teach them how to implement projects and workshops as well as how to inform and collect information about sea turtles.
We ran several workshops and tried to make the activities fun and enjoyable to reach the children in different ways. The last workshop we had was on World Environment Day. We have also developed other educational and interesting activities such as “hkayet fakroun” (Tunisian Arabic meaning “stories of a sea turtle”). This idea was developed by one of our team leaders, Abir, who made learning about sea turtles fun. We tried to make our workshops fun and interactive in order to leave an impact, and we hope we did.
Could you tell us something about your work that surprised you?
“What amazed me were the beliefs that some people have about sea turtles. There are superstitions that claim that sea turtles are mythical legendary creatures that can cure any disease or condition, especially in regarding infertility and tumors.These beliefs are too deep to be changed and have made our work more difficult.They have also made fishermen persistent in catching sea turtles to sell and profit from.
Fortunately, it was easier to convince the children because they were not exposed to these beliefs. Therefore, we have tried to spread knowledge about sea turtles in a scientific way by informing them about the importance of sea turtles in protecting the sea.”
Could you tell us a fact you want to share about SeaTuMed that we cannot find on the internet?
“SeaTuMed was not an expensive program. The budget we worked with was from 2000DT (about 650 USD) to 8000 (2600 USD) or 9000 TND. SeaTuMed was funded with small budgets that helped us create miracles. We were able to do impactful awareness and create real change in many lives. Many sea turtles have been saved thanks to this program which did not require a large budget.
Ghada also shared some tips on how to protect sea turtles and what to do when a sea turtle is found.:
“If you find a sea turtle, whether it’s alive or dead, you need to know what to do. First, you need to report it. Call associations and organizations that work to conserve sea turtles in your area. Second, you need to protect yourself. Don’t touch it! Just take a photo and share it on social networks (for example, on the Facebook group Tunsea). Also, if you want to know more about sea turtles, join our events, check out our pages and check what we have done and what we are doing. We will always be here to reach out and make sea turtles even more popular than they already are.
At the end of the interview, we asked Ghada if she had anything to add and pass on a message to readers. Enthusiastically, she added:
“I love sea turtles! You must know this creature! You have to go to INMC in Monastir and Sfax and meet a real sea turtle. I can guarantee you will fall in love with it and want to protect it. Always help be the next change for the impact and for the good of sea turtles because they truly deserve it. As a creature that has lived for millions of years, it is truly unfair and evil of us to turn it off while we are alive.
Ghada informed us that there is currently no active program, but the team is still running workshops, organizing and attending events. She also added that since several organizations in North Africa were interested in the program, “The next step is to unify these organizations and multiple partners into a single network to protect sea turtles in the Mediterranean and North Africa.”
For more information:
[i] “Sea Turtle Facts.” World Wildlife Fund. Accessed June 18, 2022. https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/sea-turtle
[ii] MEDASSET. Accessed July 1, 2022. https://www.medasset.org/sea-turtles/sea-turtles-in-the-mediterranean/#:~:text=Mediterranean%20Green%20turtles%20are%20ranked,Leatherback%20turtle% 20as%20generally%20Vulnerable.