What Are Sea Turtle Shells Used For?

Sea turtles have played vital roles in maintaining healthy oceans for over 100 million years. However, the seven remaining species now face declining populations due to poaching for their shells.

Sea turtle shells cater to various uses – from decorative items like combs and jewelry boxes to traditional medicine ingredients and religious talismans.

But with all species designated as threatened, continuing to hunt them for the curio and exotic food trades cannot be justified.

In this blog, we explore why people prize these special shells, the impacts of this demand on fragile populations, and how consumers can make ethical choices to support sea turtle conservation.

Are Sea Turtle Shell Products Illegal?

Yes, dealing in sea turtle shell products is illegal in many parts of the world. All seven remaining sea turtle species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

CITES bans international commercial trade of sea turtle shells, which includes import, export, and sale across borders.

Additionally, many countries have domestic laws banning sea turtle shell trade within their territories. For example, the United States prohibits import, export, possession, and inter-state sale of items containing sea turtle parts under the Endangered Species Act and Lacey Act.

Offenders can face hefty fines and even prison sentences if caught dealing protected wildlife items illegally.

So if you come across decorative products made of sea turtle shell, turtle shell jewelry, or any other sea turtle derived items, refrain from purchasing them. Buying these products only fuels demand, which further endangers the survival of sea turtles globally.

What Are Sea Turtle Shells Used For?

  • Decorative Items – Sea turtle shells have unique patterns and beautiful colors that have made them coveted decor items over history. People have crafted shells into jewelry boxes, hair combs, glasses, violin bows, guitar picks, and more. Shops also sell whole polished shells as souvenirs.
  • Traditional Medicine – Some Asian traditional medicine practitioners use sea turtle shell powder as an ingredient. They believe it has health benefits despite lack of scientific evidence. Consuming or using sea turtle derivatives like bone, blood, and fat is also common in certain cultures.
  • Jewelry – Bracelets, pendants, earrings, cuff links, rings, and more made of sea turtle shell still have high demand across the world. The scintillating yellows, browns, and reds make them popular in jewelry and accessories.
  • Religious Objects – In some Asian regions, craftsmen make ritual objects like prayer beads, talismans, and stamps using sea turtle scutes. Some also believe sea turtle DNA contains mystical energy.
  • Decor – Entire shell taxidermy, shells holding incense sticks, and shell-based musical instruments are common. People also use shells in flower vases, decorative boxes, brush holders, and more.
  • Exotic Food – Turtle soup made using meat, fat, eggs, and blood still considered a delicacy in some cuisines. These dishes drive hunting of turtles and nest poaching across the world.

As you can see, sea turtle shells cater to a wide range of uses. But with populations of all seven species declining, continuing to hunt turtles to fuel harmful trade cannot be justified.

Turtle SpeciesPopulation TrendCurrent Status
Hawksbill TurtleCritically Endangered – Decreasing~22,500 nesting females left
Green TurtleEndangered – Increasing~115,000-200,000 nesting females left
Loggerhead TurtleVulnerable – Decreasing~30,000-40,000 nesting females left

Why You Should Not Buy Sea Turtle Shell Products

  1. It’s illegal – As mentioned before, international commercial trade of items containing sea turtle parts is banned under CITES. Many countries also have domestic trade bans.
  2. It threatens endangered species – All seven sea turtle species face danger of extinction. Removing breeding turtles from populations hinders recovery. Poaching females from nesting beaches also severely impacts next generations.
  3. Increases demand – Supply rises to meet consumer demand. So purchasing any sea turtle products only puts more pressure on vulnerable populations that are already struggling to recover.
  4. Inhumane practice – Slaughtering sea turtles to harvest shells involves immense suffering as they are hacked apart alive in most cases. Their instincts drive females to return to beaches they hatched on to lay the next generation, making them easy targets.
  5. Risk diseases – Medicinal products containing sea turtle parts carry contamination risks from bacteria, toxins, and heavy metals. Health claims around their benefits remain scientifically unproven.
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In essence, consumption of sea turtle products is unsustainable, illegal, and immoral. The best way to protect these reptiles is to boycott items made from them altogether.

There are enough sustainable, ethical options available to suit our decorative, culinary, and cultural needs. Say no to turtle shell trade.

How to Identify Products Made From Sea Turtle Shells

To avoid accidentally buying sea turtle derived items, learn how to identify if a product contains banned turtle shell parts:

  • Unique appearance – The shell has sections called scutes arranged in unique ridges, whorls and lines patterns identifiable as sea turtle origin. Natural shell colors range from golden olive-greens to reddish-browns.
  • Market source – Turtle shell trade is rampant across Asian countries and Mexico. So ornamental and medicinal products from these places have higher risks of containing banned wildlife parts.
  • Odd transparency – Genuine turtle shell is opaque and glossy. Some sellers try to pass off lookalikes made from cow bone and ray skin by bleaching to simulate color tones. But they appear unusually transparent or layered artificially.
  • Unnaturally uniform pieces – Whole shells are asymmetrical with irregular shapes. Jewelry and decor objects made using multiple uniform, flattened circular sea turtle pieces likely involved harming them.
  • Low prices – Due to blanket bans, genuine turtle shell commands high black market prices. Very cheap asking rates indicate imitation materials. However, avoid buying any such items regardless of price.

I hope this overview gives you enough information to make ethical choices. Our small actions collectively contribute to positive change. So let us do our part to let sea turtles thrive free and safe in their natural habitats.


Sea turtles are wondrous creatures that have survived for ages, but today their future survival remains under threat. All seven species face decreasing populations, with hunting for shells and eggs being a major risk factor.

While sea turtle shells cater to various uses – from decorative items and jewelry to traditional medicine – commercial trade of their parts only fuels more poaching. As consumers, we must make ethical choices and say no to purchasing sea turtle products, legal or otherwise.

It may seem like a small sacrifice, but the collective impact of our actions can go a long way in giving these gentle ocean giants a fighting chance.

When we shop, let us be mindful of items that may contain banned wildlife materials. And when we travel, let us enjoy seeing sea turtles safely swimming free rather than as shell products.

Doing our part today will ensure the next generation also gets to share their habitats with these majestic creatures.

My name is Shayan Mondal, and I am a passionate turtle owner and enthusiast who enjoys sharing my knowledge and experience with fellow turtle lovers. As a proud owner of several turtle species, I understand the importance of proper care, habitat setup, and nutrition for these delightful creatures. This website regularly updates the latest insights into turtle health, diet, and conservation efforts.

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