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Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
Graphic Credit - NOAA, Jack Javech
STATUS: Endangered throughout its range (Federal Register, June 2, 1970).
DESCRIPTION: The hawksbill is a small to medium-sized marine turtle having an elongated oval shell with overlapping scutes on the carapace, a relatively small head with a distinctive hawk-like beak, and flippers with two claws. General coloration is brown with numerous splashes of yellow, orange, or reddish-brown on the carapace. The plastron is yellowish with black spots on the intergular and postanal scutes. Juveniles are black or very dark brown with light brown or yellow coloration on the edge of the shell, limbs, and raised ridges of the carapace. As an adult, the hawksbill may reach up to 3 feet in length and weigh up to 300 pounds, although adults more commonly average about 2½ feet in length and typically weigh around 176 pounds or less. It is the only sea turtle with a combination of two pairs of prefrontal scales on the head and four pairs of costal scutes on the carapace. The hawksbill feeds primarily on sponges and is most often associated with the coral reef community.
HABITAT: Hawksbills frequent rocky areas, coral reefs, shallow coastal areas, lagoons or oceanic islands, and narrow creeks and passes. They are seldom seen in water deeper than 65 feet. Hatchlings are often found floating in masses of sea plants, and nesting may occur on almost any undisturbed deep-sand beach in the tropics. Adult females are able to climb over reefs and rocks to nest in beach vegetation.
CRITICAL HABITAT: 50 CFR 17.95 Puerto Rico: (1) Isla Mona. All areas of beachfront on the west, south, and east sides of the island from mean high tide inland to a point 150 meters from shore. This includes all 7.2 kilometers of beaches on Isla Mona. (2) Culebra Island. The following areas of beachfront on the north shore of the island from mean high tide to a point 150 meters from shore: Playa Resaca, Playa Brava, and Playa Larga. (3) Cayo Norte. South beach, from mean high tide inland to a point 150 meters from shore. (4) Island Culebrita. All beachfront areas on the southwest facing shore, east facing shore, and northwest facing shore of the island from mean high tide inland to a point 150 meters from shore. 50 CFR 226.209 Mona and Monito Islands, Puerto Rico – Waters surrounding the islands of Mona and Monito, from the mean high water line seaward to 3 nautical miles (5.6 km).
REPRODUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT: The nesting season varies with locality, but in most locations nesting occurs sometime between April and November. Hawksbills nest at night and, on average, about 4.5 times per season at intervals of approximately 14 days. In Florida and the U.S. Caribbean, clutch size is approximately 140 eggs, although several records exist of over 200 eggs per nest. Remigration intervals of 2 to 3 years predominate. The incubation period averages 60 days. Age at sexual maturity has been estimated as 20 or more years in the Caribbean.
RANGE AND POPULATION LEVEL: The hawksbill is found in tropical and subtropical regions of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. The species is widely distributed in the Caribbean Sea and western Atlantic Ocean. In contrast to all other sea turtle species, hawksbills nest in low densities on scattered small beaches. In 2007, about 21,212 to 28,138 hawksbills were estimated to nest each year at 83 nesting sites distributed among 10 ocean regions around the world. About 15,000 females are estimated to nest each year throughout the world with the Caribbean accounting for 20 to 30 percent of the world’s hawksbill population. Panama, which used to support the single most important nesting population in the Caribbean, is only a remnant population. Mexico and Cuba now support the largest nesting populations in the Caribbean with 534 to 891 nesting females recorded in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, each year during 2001-2006 and 400-833 nesting females estimated in Cuba in 2002. Although greatly depleted from historical levels, nesting populations in the Atlantic in general are doing better than in the Indo-Pacific. In the Atlantic, more population increases have been recorded in the Insular Caribbean than along the Western Caribbean Mainland or the Eastern Atlantic. In general, hawksbills are doing better in the Indian Ocean (especially the southwestern and northwestern Indian Ocean) than in the Pacific. In fact, the situation for hawksbills in the Pacific Ocean is particularly dire, despite the fact that it still has more nesting hawksbills than in either the Atlantic or Indian Oceans. Only four regional populations remain with more than 1,000 females nesting annually (one in Indonesia and three in Australia). In the U.S. Caribbean, 199-332 nests were recorded each year on Mona Island, Puerto Rico, from 2001-2005, and an average of 56 nests were laid at Buck Island Reef National Monument, U.S. Virgin Islands, from 2001-2006. In the U.S. Pacific, hawksbills nest only on main island beaches in Hawaii, primarily along the east coast of the island of Hawaii. Hawksbill nesting has also been documented in American Samoa and Guam.
REASONS FOR CURRENT STATUS: The decline of this species is primarily due to human exploitation for tortoiseshell. While the legal hawksbill shell trade ended when Japan agreed to stop importing shell in 1993, a significant illegal trade continues. Other threats include loss or degradation of nesting habitat from coastal development and beach armoring; disorientation of hatchlings by beachfront lighting; nest predation by native and non-native predators; degradation of foraging habitat; marine pollution and debris; watercraft strikes; and incidental take from commercial fishing operations.
MANAGEMENT AND PROTECTION: Since hawksbills migrate long distances and co-mingle extensively on foraging areas, and since there are 36 geopolitical units in the Caribbean, implementing effective conservation measures in the Caribbean is complex and will require long-term cooperation between Caribbean nations for recovery efforts to succeed. Continued efforts are needed to protect nesting beaches; minimize the threat from illegal exploitation through intensified law enforcement efforts to curb the incidence of poaching and harassment; maintain the ban on international trade in hawksbill products; and ensure long-term protection of important foraging habitats by designating them as marine sanctuaries or as State, territorial, or Commonwealth aquatic preserves or sanctuaries.
Lutz, P.L., and J.A. Musick (eds.). 1997. The Biology of Sea Turtles. CRC Press, Inc., Boca Raton, FL.
Lutz, P.L., J.A. Musick, and J. Wyneken (eds.). 2003. The Biology of Sea Turtles, Volume 2. CRC Press, Inc., Boca Raton, FL.
Meylan, A. and A. Redlow. 2006. Eretmochelys imbricata – hawksbill turtle. Chelonian Research Monographs 3:105-127.
National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1993. Recovery plan for hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) in the U.S. Caribbean, Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico. National Marine Fisheries Service, St. Petersburg, FL.
National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1998. Recovery plan for U.S. Pacific populations of the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). National Marine Fisheries Service, Silver Spring, MD.
National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2007. Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) 5-year review: summary and evaluation.
Rhodin, A.G.J., and P.C.H. Pritchard (eds.). 1999. Special Focus Issue: The Hawksbill Turtle, Eretmochelys imbricata. Chelonian Conservation and Biology 3(2):169-388.
For more information please contact:
Southeast Sea Turtle Coordinator
Program Officer, Marine Turtle Conservation Fund
Last Reviewed: January 2015
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