Good News for Green Sea Turtles

Green sea turtles could possibly have their extinction risk level officially changed from “endangered” to “threatened” after two extensive surveys have shown that the gentle marine creatures are beginning to bounce back from near extinction. The photogenic green sea turtles were designated as “endangered” in 1978 under the Endangered Species Act. Recent research, however, has concluded that the median sea turtle population, of which green sea turtles are counted, has increased by almost 980 percent since the ESA took effect. A bounce-back like this not only holds hope for the future of herbivores like the green sea turtle but for the future of all endangered flora and fauna protected by international and national protection legislation.

A Little Background

Green sea turtles are born at about 2 inches on the beaches of subtropical and tropical countries and islands. However, they can grow up to be over 5 feet and weigh over 700 pounds. They travel massive distances from breeding grounds to feeding grounds, but as herbivores, they stick to shallow lagoons where they munch on the sea grasses. Normally they are found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but the Indian ocean also houses some of these enormous turtles! They live up to 80 years in the wild, and by feeding on the ocean grasses, they are vital to keeping many marine ecosystems healthy.

Green sea turtles have been hunted for years in the tropical and subtropical waters they reside in to be ‘harvested’ for human consumption of both their eggs and their meat as well as their intricate, olive-colored shells. Hunters would wait on the beaches at night until the female turtles lay their eggs and then they would capture both the eggs and the mothers. Thousands of turtles were killed each year, sometimes as many as 5,000 in one region.

Then came the President Nixon-era Endangered Species Act (ESA). This piece of legislation was passed by Congress in 1973 for the purpose of protecting and recovering “imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.” The two organizations charged with enforcing this act – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service – monitor “endangered” and “threatened” species as well as their ecosystems on both land and in water to prevent them from facing extinction. Green sea turtles joined the endangered species list in 1978.

Under the ESA, the habitats of green sea turtles were extremely protected from habitat destruction, hunting, overfishing, and waste disposal as well as reaping the benefits of a conscious effort to revitalize food sources, save migratory pathways and breeding grounds, as well as rebuild destroyed habitats. Hunting bans included fines of anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 and up to one year in prison.

What Were the Effects of the ESA?

Two recent studies published in Plos One Journal– one published in January and the other in April — have provided the necessary research to conclude that legislation like the Endangered Species Act, which has had almost forty years to make an impact, can help bring species (even one as slow-growing as turtles) back to healthier numbers.

The study in April happened almost accidentally, as the original object of the research was to count how many fish lived in and around the multiple coral reef systems of Hawaii and the surrounding Pacific American islands. As a byproduct, the number of turtles were recorded as well. The scientists counted almost 3,400 green sea turtles throughout covering approximately 7,300 linear kilometers of reef systems. They concluded that although the “Hawaiian islands had the lowest turtle densities” they maintained that they also had “the highest annual population growth, suggesting extensive management protections can yield positive conservation results.”

The study conducted in January had concluded similar promising results with six specific sea turtle populations increasing by 75 percent after ESA legislation was enacted. They concluded that their “findings underscore the capacity of marine mammal and sea turtle species to recover from substantial geographical population declines when conservation actions are implemented in a timely and effective manner.”

Florida, in an area that some consider to be the most important breeding ground for the North Atlantic green sea turtle, reported that in 1989 they only saw 464 turtles. However, by 2016, that number had increased to 39,000 and the ESA was credited with this massive victory.

David Godfrey, the executive of the Sea Turtle Conservancy explained how green sea turtles may have recovered due to the ESA, so much so as to be labeled “threatened” versus the more foreboding “endangered” designation. “We’re really seeing the fruits of all that work now with the exponential growth in green turtle nesting,” Godfrey told TakePart in an interview. “This is what it takes with sea turtles in particular because they grow so slowly. Those hatchlings from 30 years ago are reaching adulthood and coming back.”

So, What Now?

Although green sea turtles have managed to resist disappearing from the earth permanently, their struggle is far from over. The ocean is warming more rapidly than any of us could have imagined. There are 500 times more microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in our galaxy. And many threats still remain despite the laws laid out by the ESA: getting trapped in nets and fishing line; ocean pollution; destruction of habitats from both coastal development and ‘natural disasters’; illegal hunting for shells, meat, and eggs; and overfishing.

But these studies through their extensive research have given us hope for the future that green sea turtles might be more resilient to the effects of climate change. In the words of Selina Heppell, the head of the fisheries and wildlife department at Oregon State University interviewed by NBC News, “Sea turtles are bellwethers. They’re flagships that we use to tell the story of what’s going on in the oceans.”

And they have taught us a valuable lesson — with the proper legislation as well as international and national cooperation, marine species like green sea turtles can be rescued from the brink of extinction. Every journey begins with a step.

Photo by Myk Salonga entitled “Sea Turtle Family Portrait”

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Catie Brown