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Environment

EU moves to protect sea turtles

Europe's high court has ruled that Greece has failed to protect an important nesting site for the loggerhead sea turtle. Nesting sites are of utmost importance, since loggerhead breeding is infrequent and precarious.

The European Court of Justice, the "supreme court" of the European Union, ruled on Thursday (10.11.2016) that Greece has failed to protect loggerhead sea turtles that lay their eggs in the Bay of Kyparissia.

The bay is protected under the EU's Natura 2000 network, which designates areas that cannot be disturbed because they contain endangered species. But according to the court's ruling, Greek authorities have allowed homes and roads to be built in the area over the past 20 years.

Kyparissia Bay in Greece (Estelle Angelinas)

Kyparissia Bay in Greece is the second-most-important breeding ground for loggerhead turtles in the Mediterranean

"The construction and use of such infrastructure, particularly because of the noise, light and human presence entailed, are likely - as are 'wild' camping and the operation of bars - to significantly disturb the loggerhead turtle during breeding," the court said in a statement.

The bay is the second-most-important breeding site for the loggerhead sea turtle, which only lays eggs once every two to three years.

Female sea turtles, which are on average 90 centimeters long, leave the sea at night and move towards the driest area of the beach, where they dig a hole, into which each lays around 120 eggs.

Two months later, the eggs hatch and the young turtles emerge from the sand, heading toward the sea. Because they are vulnerable, a large number of the hatchlings die. For this reason, the turtle has a low reproductive rate.

The loggerhead sea turtle is also found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. It spends most of its life in saltwater and estuarine habitats, with females briefly coming ashore to lay eggs.

Loggerhead sea turtles at the Stralsund marine museum (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Büttner)

Loggerheads are among the most common species to be held in captivity

In addition to disruption of breeding grounds, untended fishing gear is also responsible for many loggerhead deaths. Turtles may also suffocate if they are trapped in fishing trawls. Loggerhead turtles, along with green sea turtles, are the sea turtle species that are most commonly kept in captivity.

The European Commission, the EU's executive branch, first brought a complaint against Greece for failing to protect the turtles in 2011. Since it was not satisfied with the country's response, it took Greece to court. 

The court has ruled in the past that Greece was failing to protect sea turtles elsewhere in the country, on the Ionian island of Zakynthos.

The ruling in the Kyparissia Bay case is more serious, because the court found that the regional authorities had no "comprehensive and coherent preventive legislative framework" in place before the commission brought it to court.

However, the court recognized that some legislative action was taken by Greece after the complaint was brought, to prevent further construction.

If Greece fails to limit development around the bay to protect the turtle's habitat, the commission can ask the court to impose fines. 

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