Are sea turtle hatcheries ethical?

Many of our trips include the opportunity to observe nesting or hatching sea turtles, either as part of a holiday or as a volunteer placement. Well-managed tourism like this contributes to the conservation of sea turtles – six out of the seven species of which are classified as vulnerable or endangered.

However, for sea turtle conservation programmes to be successful, strict guidelines must be followed. There must be no interference in the nesting process, and numbers of tourists and/or volunteers must be tightly controlled to avoid distressing the turtles.

In some cases, there is a lot more human involvement in the nesting and hatching process. The eggs may be removed from the nest and placed in ‘hatcheries’, either in artificial nests or reburied in protected parts of the beach. Hatchlings may be assisted by volunteers once they emerge or held back for later release. In more extreme cases, the hatchlings are kept in tanks.

Unfortunately, while these hatcheries and tanks have usually been established with the best intentions, they are not always beneficial to the sea turtles.

What are the problems with turtle hatcheries?

Monitoring success

Turtle hatcheries are not sanctuaries, zoos, rescue or rehabilitation centres. They are used – or should be used – only when natural nesting conditions are threatened, such as by flooding, erosion, predation or heavy poaching.

Success rates are extremely difficult to monitor, as once hatched, the young turtles disappear into the open ocean for up to a decade, and take between 10 and 50 years to reach maturity, depending on the species. This means that issues such as ill health, disease, or of the gender of the turtles (the sex is determined by the temperature of the incubating eggs) may not become apparent until they return to nest – or not – in many years’ time.


Another issue is the ‘imprinting’ of the location of the beach in the turtles’ memories. Female turtles lay their eggs on the same beach where they hatched. Any interference in their initial journey to the sea can disrupt this imprinting process and affect their nesting habits far into the future.

Encouraging poaching

There is another issue, too, which in recent years has particularly affected some hatcheries in Sri Lanka. As one of the biggest threats to sea turtles there is the stealing of eggs, some hatcheries have started buying eggs from poachers. While this has undoubtedly saved many eggs from ending up on plates, there are concerns that this has now created a market for the eggs, as poachers take more and more, in the knowledge that they will be paid for them by the hatcheries.

Lack of knowledge

Of course, there will be some unscrupulous hatcheries set up to take advantage of paying tourists and volunteers. But there are many others run by well-meaning communities and individuals – often volunteers themselves – which are in fact damaging the turtles’ chances of survival due to a lack of knowledge about their life cycles and biology. Handling eggs, using tanks, incubating eggs at the incorrect temperature, nests dug at the wrong depth and sand being too wet or too dry can all impact the success rates of the hatcheries. In some cases, this means that success rates are lower than if the eggs had been left in situ.

Potential problems from a lack of knowledge include…

    Incorrect handling. Eggs must only be moved within five hours of being laid (some studies recommend just two hours). After this time, there is a risk that membranes will be ruptured and the embryos will die. Both eggs and hatchlings are susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections. Eggs should ideally be laid directly into a bag; if that is not possible, they should be handled with single use latex gloves. If hatchlings must be handled, this too should be with gloves. The temperature of the nest affects the sex of the embryos, with higher temperatures resulting in female hatchlings. Unfortunately, this is very difficult to monitor, as any gender imbalance may not be known until the turtles are due to nest a decade or more down the line. And if the temperature is too high or too low, the embryos will die. Dry sand will dehydrate the eggs and stop them developing. Wet sand, or overly compacted sand, reduces the circulation of oxygen, and also threatens the embryos. Poorly chosen nest locations. Artificial nests must be dug in a different location each year to prevent the spread of disease. The fluid that leaks from the eggs when turtles hatch is a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus. There must be a minimum of two years before creating nests in the same spot. If there is no other option, sand can be “treated” – sifted, treated with chlorine, and exposed to sunlight – but this is a difficult and lengthy process, which also carries risks. Some nests should always be left intact on the beaches. A hatchery should never contain more than 50 percent of all eggs otherwise they are, literally, putting all their eggs in one basket. This means a storm, flood, high tide or erosion of sand could end up destroying everything. Hatcheries must be observed constantly to prevent predators or poachers, as well as to count hatchlings and free any which get trapped, or contain any hatchlings which emerge during the day. Unsuccessful releases. If a hatchling can’t be released immediately (ie. if they hatch during the day), they must be placed in a container with damp sand, in a dark place. If put in water, they will swim and exhaust themselves. Those which are held too long before releasing may have used too much energy to be able to reach the sea or swim the necessary distances. When hatchlings released in the same place, at the same time of day, it creates ‘feeding stations’ that will begin to attract predators, such as dogs, birds and even fish.
Travel Team
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When should turtle hatcheries be used?

A hatchery should never be established as the main method of conservation. It should be a last resort – and even then, it should be used alongside other conservation measures. Hatcheries require extensive labour and funds to be successful and are not a long term solution. Beach patrols, clear demarcation of nests and protective fencing are better options, if possible.

And of course, if poaching is the key issue, education, campaigning and creating other sources of income for local people are essential to ensure the turtles’ long-term survival.

Which sea turtle hatcheries do we promote?

Ideally, we would prefer to promote sea turtle conservation programmes that preserve eggs in situ and promote the protection of habitats. In the case that a hatchery must be used, we will only promote it if the following conditions are met:

    The hatchery must be managed by experienced, qualified staff who are experts in turtle conservation. If volunteer placements are offered, volunteers must undergo training before having any contact with the turtles, eggs or hatchlings. Handling eggs and hatchlings should be avoided, but if it is essential, it must be done with latex gloves or similar. There must be detailed monitoring and evaluation systems in place to ensure that the hatchery is effective. These should maintain data on the number of nests and eggs, and the percentage of eggs that hatch successfully. They may also use additional measures such as tagging the nesting turtles, measuring them, tracking how many return each year, and so on. There must be evidence of wider conservation initiatives, both for the beach and marine environments and with local communities.

Which sea turtle hatcheries do we not promote?

We do not promote any hatcheries that use tanks to house hatchlings (tanks for rescued adult turtles is a separate issue). There is little evidence that tanks improve the survival rates of hatchlings, as the risk of disease transmission is high, and deformities and even cannibalism have been documented. Those hatchlings that do survive in tanks may pass on diseases to wild turtles once released. Another concern is the imprinting process, as it is believed that this is unlikely to occur if the turtles’ journey to the sea is delayed by days or weeks.

The practise of farming sea turtles for human consumption is, thankfully, almost entirely over. Turtles are eaten in the Cayman Islands, and the Cayman Turtle Centre there has faced controversy for farming in the past. We would absolutely not advocate visiting or working for any organisation that farms turtles for their meat.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ankur P] [Intro: Falco Ermert] [Lack of knowledge: kwan kwan] [Which sea turtle hatcheries do we not promote?: Alexander Solovyov]