Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office
Pacific Region

Endangered Species in the Pacific Islands

Hawksbill Turtle | Eretmochelys imbricata

Photo of hawksbill turtle The endangered hawksbill turtle is one of seven species of sea turtles found throughout the world. One of the smaller sea turtles, it has overlapping scutes (plates) that are thicker than those of other sea turtles. This protects them from being battered against sharp coral and rocks during storm events.
Hawksbill turtle - Photo credit George Balazs/NMFS

Adults range in size from 25 to 36 inches (0.8-1.0 meters) carapace length, and weigh 100 to 200 pounds (45-90 kilograms). Its carapace (upper shell) is an attractive dark brown with faint yellow streaks and blotches and a yellow plastron (under shell). The name "hawksbill" refers to the turtle's prominent hooked beak.

Habitat & Behavior:
The hawksbill turtle is found in warm tropical waters worldwide. In the Pacific United States, hawksbill sea turtles are found along the coasts of Hawai‘i, American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).

The hawksbill turtle is a shy tropical reef dwelling species that feeds on jellyfish, sea urchins, and their favorite food sea sponges. It may also eat algae that grows on the reef. The hawksbill turtle takes in ocean water while feeding, but gets rid of the extra salt by shedding big salty tears. It is a swift and graceful swimmer, reaching speeds of up to 15 miles per hour.

In Hawai‘i, nesting currently occurs on the islands of Hawai‘i, Maui, Moloka‘i, and O‘ahu. Not all of the presently known nesting beaches in Hawai‘i have nesting each year. The coastline of Kau on Hawai‘i and a black sand beach at the river mouth of Halawa Valley on Moloka`i are the most consistently used nesting beaches.

Past & Present:
Hawksbill turtles have served a wide range of important functions to Pacific Islanders. The shell of this species has been described as the "world's first plastic" and has served a wide variety of ornamental and practical uses. The bones were fashioned to make tools. Various body parts were used to make medicine. The flesh and eggs provided food.

Hawksbill turtles populations have declined dramatically in the Pacific islands. Illegal international trade of items made from this species is one of the worst threats to its survival. Since 1970, more than one million hawksbill turtles have been killed for their shells. Many products are made from the shell's scutes, which have a beautiful pattern often described as "tortoise shell." These include combs, brushes, cigarette boxes, jewelry, hair ornaments, and other types of accessories. Sometimes young turtles are killed, then stuffed by a taxidermist, and used as decoration. Other threats to the continued existence of this species include beach erosion and coastal construction.

Conservation Efforts:
Hawksbill turtles are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act throughout all areas under U.S. jurisdiction. In the Pacific, the ESA applies to Hawai‘i, Guam, CNMI, American Samoa, and the eight unincorporated U.S. islands (Midway, Wake, Johnston, Palmyra, Kingman, Jarvis, Howland, and Baker).

Inclusion of hawksbill turtles into the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has made it illegal to trade any products made from this species in the U.S. and 130 other countries. The final Recovery Plans for this species serves as guidance in actions to recover hawksbill sea turtle populations.


Last updated: September 20, 2012
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