Decades of conservation efforts pay off for the endangered green sea turtle.
By Rona Marech
Few people visit East Key, a tiny, sandy island in Dry Tortugas National Park, situated at the farthest end of the Florida Keys. Roughly 1,300 feet long and 300 feet wide, the island is off-limits to the general public. But last summer Kristen Hart spent a night there doing some “very strange babysitting,” as she describes it. A research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Hart didn’t know if any nesting turtles would show up at the site that day. But one by one, a band of green sea turtles and one loggerhead turtle emerged from the sea and lumbered around the beach looking for perfect nesting spots. First a handful arrived, and then a few more joined them, until there were ten in all, wandering around and digging in the sand.
“It was pretty amazing and hysterical watching these turtles crawl onto the beach in the middle of the night. They were almost bumping into each other,” Hart says. “Some of the females are many years older than I am, so you wonder, ‘Where have they been? What have they seen?’ And here they are on this little beach with me.”
She was there all night, taking blood and tissue samples and drawing symbols on the turtles’ shells to keep track of who was who. Most of the turtles laid their eggs and left, but one was still on the beach as the sun rose. “It was almost like a dream,” she said.
Not so long ago, green turtle soup was a delicacy, turtles were harvested around the world, and in many places, the species was close to extinction. But decades of conservation efforts have dramatically changed the turtles’ fortunes. In 1989, biologists counted only 464 nests on 26 “index” beaches in Florida, the state with the largest green sea turtle population. Last year, researchers at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission documented 25,000 nests on the same beaches.
It’s one of the greatest conservation success stories of our time, says David Godfrey, executive director of Sea Turtle Conservancy. The turnaround started in 1978 when turtles were officially declared endangered and came off the menu in the United States. Other factors contributing to the turtles’ banner reproductive year include a global—though not universal—ban on fishing for turtles, and laws that prohibit certain commercial fishing nets or that require nets to have trapdoors for turtles. (See box.) Other protective measures limit activity that encroaches on turtle habitat and restrict artificial light, which can disorient turtles during nesting season.
That so much effort has been poured into saving green sea turtles may have something to do with the devotion of proponents, who (with the barest prodding) will wax poetic on the beauty and mystery of the creature.
“Watching turtles crawl out of the sea and dig holes in the sand the way they’ve done for 100 million years, hearing them breathing then disappearing as silently as they came back into the sea—it’s just an incredible thing,” says Godfrey.
The fossil record shows that these so-called living dinosaurs are more than 200 million years old, but that’s just the beginning of their compelling story. They are fundamentally sea animals, yet they breathe air and lay their eggs on land. The only vegetarian sea turtles, green turtles eat primarily sea grass, which accounts for their color and their name. They can take 25 years or more to reach adulthood, growing as big as dining tables. In Florida, they average 450 pounds with shells measuring 40 inches end to end, according to Anne Marie Lauritsen of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For years, the turtles float around the ocean, drifting with the currents. Researchers are only now piecing together their path, which eventually leads the turtles to take up semi-permanent residence in tropical reefs or seagrass beds near such places as the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cuba, Florida, and other parts of the Caribbean. When the turtles hit their 20s, the females’ internal reproductive alarm sounds and they make the incredible journey back to the very beaches where their own lives began. They dig with their back flippers, throwing sand as they go, before each turtle deposits as many as 140 eggs in a single hole. From late spring into the fall, the turtles lay eggs every couple of weeks, and they return to nest again roughly every other year.
After roughly 55 days, the eggs hatch, and turtles the size of a human palm dash toward the inky sea guided by the reflection of moonlight on the water. The hatchlings that make it—sometimes none and sometimes nearly all of them—slide into the sea all on their own. And the cycle begins again.
Though more and more hatchlings are surviving, Lauritsen refuses to use the word “comeback.” The trend is positive, she says, but there are still lurking, human threats including boat strikes and marine pollution. Developments ranging from condominiums to sea walls are squeezing sea turtles into smaller nesting areas, and lighting regulations are spotty. Turtle fishing continues in some places, and commercial fisheries still ensnare turtles accidentally. For years, a sometimes-fatal virus called fibropapillomatosis has been plaguing turtles, causing them to develop tumors on fleshy tissue all over their bodies.
In short, green turtle soup won’t be back in fashion for a while, if ever. The turtles may come off the endangered species list one day, but not anytime soon. “There are things that continue to make them vulnerable,” says Godfrey. “We have to keep fighting as best we can to address those threats, or all the progress we’ve made in the last five decades will be undone.”
In the meantime, Hart is waiting to see what the next nesting season brings and whether that parade of turtles was an anomaly. Historically, the numbers fluctuate, but who knows?
“I think we’ll probably have some more nights that are pretty crazy,” Hart says. “I may even have to rethink my staffing plan for next year.”