Jaelynn Hart / Staff Writer
It’s not very often that humanity gets to pat itself on the back for having a positive effect on the environment, but scientists are labeling sea turtles as a “global conservation success story” as the population numbers rise away from the brink of extinction. Because of the many dangers causing the decline in many populations of plants and animals – including habitat loss, climate change, etc. – conservation success stories are incredibly rare and scientists fear we may be experiencing a sixth mass extinction.
However, an ecologist at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, Antonios Mazaris, and a team of international researchers have found that most populations of sea turtles are bouncing back after historical declines. Six of seven sea turtle species are enlisted under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) at varying levels; many of them have been on the list since 1970. Since then, conservation efforts – such as protecting nesting beaches, reducing morality of fisheries, and establishing marine protected areas – have made a significant impact.
Humans have not been kind to turtles, who are killed for their shells and meat and have their eggs harvested for food. Their nesting and foraging habitats have been destroyed and they often find themselves tangled in fishing nets or caught by fishermen accidentally. Turtles listed under the endangered list include the Hawksbill, Kemp’s Ridley, and the Green Turtle (who are all critically endangered), Loggerhead, Leatherback, and the Olive Ridley (who are all vulnerable); only the Flatback is not listed as threatened. To gauge turtle numbers, the research team studied data on 299 nesting sites, monitored between six and forty-seven years. What they found was that ninety-five of those nesting sites had significantly increased numbers of nests, compared to the thirty-five that had significant decreases. They were surprised to find that, with adequate protection, even small populations of turtles have a chance to survive.
In contrast with some other at-risk species, sea turtles have been much easier to manage because their threats are more tangible – they accidentally get trapped by fishermen or are harvested by others. Conservation efforts dating back to the 1950s have made an impact, protecting beaches, regulating fishing, and establishing marine protected areas have helped save turtles in many locations. This isn’t always the case for most conservation stories, like with the endangered caribou, who faces threats that are more difficult to gauge and manage.
However, sea turtles aren’t out of the woods yet and this research highlights the importance of continued conservation and monitoring efforts that underpin this conservation story. Dr. Mazaris has claimed this a tale of “cautionary optimism.” He commends conservationists working to save turtles over the past seventy years, but “long term efforts need to be supported.” Nonetheless, this comeback is promising, not only for the turtles, but also for marine ecosystems and the marine economy as a whole.