Hermosa Beach sisters are spearheading what they hope to become a global effort to help save the dwindling sea turtle population which has been hit hard by climate change and marine pollution, such as plastic bags and straws.

Seventeen-year-old twins Maya and Thea Welch along with their 14-year-old sister Ella, started visiting turtle sanctuaries while on vacations about six years ago.

The twins, rising seniors, and Ella, a rising sophomore at Mira Costa High School have been environmentally conscious since the days of the Keep Hermosa Hermosa campaign, a grass-roots effort that succeeded in banning oil drilling in the beach city.

The siblings did their research and discovered just how important Green Sea Turtles and Leatherback Sea Turtles are to the ecosystem of oceans and beaches.

So they formed a nonprofit titled Hermosa Tortuga (tortuga is Spanish for turtle) to aid turtle head-start programs that take place at various locations around the world.

Green Sea Turtles, found in temperate and tropical waters near coastlines and around islands, are listed as "threatened" in the U.S. and "endangered" internationally,  according to the Sea Turtle Conservancy.

The conservancy lists Leatherback Sea Turtles, with powerful front flippers capable of swimming thousands of miles over the open ocean, as "endangered" in the U.S. and "vulnerable" internationally.

Maya said the importance of the turtles comes from the fact that they are known as the “gardeners of the sea.”

“They eat all the seagrass and that's where the algae lives,” Maya said. “All the small fish feed on the algae and the seagrass is also the breeding grounds for various fish (shellfish and crustaceans as well). So without the seagrass being trimmed, which the turtles do, none of the other fish and marine life can survive.”

But, sometimes, turtles make their nests too close to the ocean. Salt water can enter the nest and, according to conservationists, wipe out all the turtle eggs.

So, it's these head-start programs that ensure baby turtles hatch and reach the ocean. The volunteers carefully dig up the nests at risk, incubate the turtles and put them into swimming pools.

The Welch sisters spent several weeks at a head-start program this summer in the Caribbean where they harvested and incubated more than 1,000 sea turtle eggs.

“We also released over 1,000 loggerhead and green sea turtle hatchlings into the sea,” said Ella. “These are eggs that have been incubating at the rescue center, which were harvested around 50 days ago. It is a great feeling to work in this head-start program every day to help increase the sea turtle population, and it is such a thrill to hold these little turtles in your hand and watch them bolt into the sea when released.”

There are several ways their efforts can be supported including adoption of 100 sea turtles. Sponsors will get a photo of their eggs and their name will be written on the sign above the nest.

The other ways that they are asking for support include donations; the purchase of merchandise such as T-shirts, hats or tote bags at their website; or becoming a Hermosa Tortuga Ambassador, which has been aided by their Mira Costa classmates.

“I think we're going to make it a club this upcoming school year which we didn't get to do this past school year,” Thea said.

But they are always recruiting. They are working hard to make their group international. They already have Hermosa Tortuga Ambassadors in Sweden, England and Canada, as well as Italy, Australia and Asia.

Hermosa Tortuga could also benefit from corporate sponsors.

“I feel with our youthfulness, we have a lot of energy that we're willing to dedicate to help the turtles, so we need the means to do so,” Maya said.

Hermosa Tortuga held a beach cleanup by the Manhattan Beach Pier in June as a way to raise awareness, and they hope to host other similar events in the future.

At the July 9 Hermosa Beach City Council meeting, the sisters were presented with a certificate of recognition for their conservation work and to “help their cause by eliminating single-use plastic.”

Maya said they the honor was “humbling.”

“It's a great feeling doing something bigger than ourselves,” Maya said.

For more information, visit hermosatortuga.org.

Contact this reporter at mhixon@tbrnews.com or on Twitter @michaeljhixon.com.

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