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Green Sea Turtles Are No Longer Endangered in Florida and Mexico

Decades of conservation efforts have led authorities to downgrade the turtles to threatened, though many challenges still remain

(David Burdick/NOAA)
smithsonian.com

The last century have been brutal for sea turtles of all species. Beach developments destroyed nesting sites for the giant marine reptiles, pollution and warming waters made them ill, fishing nets snared them, and industrial-scale harvesting to feed people crashed their populations. But there is finally some good news when it comes to sea turtles. Yesterday, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced they’ve downgraded populations of the green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas, in Florida and Mexico from endangered to threatened.

It’s an incremental victory for the turtles, which were still being made into canned soup in the Florida Keys as late as the early 1970s. But since they were listed as endangered in 1978, the breeding populations in Florida and Mexico have rebounded due to protection of nesting grounds, prohibitions on catching the turtles, and efforts to reduce “bycatch,” when turtles get caught in fishing nets. According to NOAA, the breeding population in Florida has increased from just a handful in the late 1970s to 2,250 nesting females during the last census.

The agencies also announced a new plan to help recover green sea turtles worldwide. They are dividing the global turtle habitat into 11 sections, which allows conservationists to implement various management plans. In eight of those sections the turtles are listed as threatened. According to Discovery News, the turtles will be listed as endangered in the Mediterranean, Central South Pacific and Central West Pacific Ocean.

“Successful conservation and management efforts developed in Florida and along the Pacific coast of Mexico are a roadmap for further recovery strategies of green turtle populations around the world,” Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries says in the press release.

Still, there are many challenges for the almost 600,000 nesting female green sea turtles around the world. Fishing nets remain an issue, as are egg poachers in some areas. A viral disease called fibropapillomatosis leads to tumors in some young turtles in warm waters. And rising sea levels may affect nesting habitat.  With so many challenges remaining for the green sea turtles, tailoring the management strategies to small groups will help them target the specific issues each population faces, Sobeck explains in the release.

“Florida's coasts are ground zero for sea-level rise,” Jacki Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity tells Jenny Staletovich at The Miami Herald, “and the country is looking for us to carefully plan and manage for rising seas and our nesting sea turtles.”

Even so, the news is welcome in the grim world of ocean conservation. “The undeniable recovery of most green sea turtle populations creates a hopeful spot in our changing oceans,” Catherine Kilduff an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program says in a press release. “This success story shows that the Endangered Species Act works and is an essential safety net for endangered wildlife.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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