Something remarkable is happening with the green turtle population that nests in Florida and up the east coast of the United States. As the 2013 nesting season draws to a close, the numbers being reported by track surveyors give real hope for the recovery of this iconic endangered species. In particular, the trend for green turtle nesting in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s central east coast is evidence of an inspiring conservation success story brought about by over 30 years of support and collaboration among public agencies, nonprofit groups like Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC), researchers from the University of Central Florida and local citizens with a strong sense of stewardship for this globally important turtle rookery.
It has been clear for at least 10 years that green turtle nesting is on the rise in Florida. In fact, the increase in nesting has followed an exponential curve—leading many conservationists to declare the Florida population of green turtles as the fastest growing colony of this species in the world. Growth rates in Florida have even surpassed the celebrated increases in green turtle nesting documented by STC in Costa Rica, though the Tortuguero colony is still significantly larger then the population nesting in the U.S.
Despite the recent positive trends in nesting, no one predicted what has occurred this year in the Carr Refuge and throughout the southeast. The number of nests deposited by green turtles this summer in Florida shattered all previous records. Nesting in the Carr Refuge alone has more than doubled the previous record high, which was set just two years ago. Nesting increases also have been observed this year in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia as well. Even South Florida, which doesn’t get nearly as many nests as Central Florida, has seen a doubling of green turtle nests this season.
“It’s just a miracle,” said Dr. Llew Ehrhart in a recent interview with the Miami Herald. “This is one of the greatest positive stories in the history of wildlife conservation in America, mostly because they were decimated so badly.”
Dr. Ehrhart is a retired University of Central Florida biologist who coordinated nest monitoring in the Archie Carr Refuge for decades. He and his students from UCF have documented turtle nesting along much of the Brevard County coastline since 1982. Ehrhart’s data about loggerhead nesting on this stretch of coast helped justify the establishment of the Carr Refuge along a densely-nested, 20-mile stretch that runs from Melbourne to Vero Beach. Though the Carr Refuge encompasses just a small fraction of the Florida coast, about 25% of all the sea turtle nesting in Florida occurs within the Refuge boundary.
Throughout the 80s, Dr. Ehrhart rarely counted more than 50 green turtle nests in the area that would become the Carr Refuge. By the early 1990s, after the beach had been designated by Congress as the first federal refuge for sea turtles in the U.S., nesting slowly climbed into the hundreds, and over the last decade the number of green turtle nests started to exceed 1,000 nests in alternating years. A common trend with green turtles is their alternating high and low nesting years, a feature first reported by Archie Carr while directing STC’s green turtle monitoring project at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. In the Archie Carr Refuge, the record level for green turtle nesting took a major jump in 2011, when the number exceeded 6,000 for the first time since monitoring began. Now just two years later, that record high has been eclipsed by a new record of just under 13,000 green turtle nests.
To what do we credit this amazing success story? What we are seeing is most likely the result of over 30 years of conservation efforts on behalf of U.S. sea turtle populations really starting to pay off. Those efforts include coastal lighting ordinances requiring the use of turtle-friendly beachfront lighting to prevent the disorientation of nesting turtles and hatchlings; restrictions on the use of coastal armoring and other habitat-destroying structures to combat beach erosion; coastal land acquisition programs that have preserved important stretches of nesting habitat such as the Carr Refuge; a ban on the use of gillnets in Florida waters enacted in 1994 that decreased incidental capture of green turtles; and, of course, the federal requirement that all shrimp trawlers use Turtle Excluder Devices that allow turtles to escape trawl nets before they drown. These all have greatly aided in the recovery of green turtles, but most sea turtle conservationists agree that the single most important conservation step occurred in 1978, when the green turtle was added to the federal list of endangered species. The Endangered Species Act banned the harvest of eggs, turtle hunting, and any sale of sea turtle meat, domestic or imported.
It should not be surprising that when we finally stopped eating green turtles and killing them to make things out of their shells and skin, the species would begin to make a come back. The growth of green turtle populations observed by STC in Tortuguero coincides with major conservation actions implemented 30 and 40 years ago in Costa Rica—roughly the time it takes a hatchling to reach reproductive age and begin nesting on the beach where it was born. The exponential growth of green turtles in Florida follows similar conservation actions taken about three decades ago. Our investments in the recovery of this species are maturing, and hopefully the interest will continue to compound.
While it is appropriate to celebrate the amazing success story for green turtles, we must remain vigilant in their protection. Sea turtles of all species still face a number of daunting threats, such as widespread development of their nesting beaches, shoreline armoring, light pollution, interactions with commercial fisheries and marine pollution. STC will continue addressing threats to sea turtles here in the U.S. and abroad so one day all sea turtle populations will begin to recover as green turtles are doing now in Florida.
STC’s Role in the Archie Carr Refuge
STC has been an active supporter and advocate for the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge since the idea was first conceived over 25 years ago. Our organization played a significant role in establishing the refuge in 1989, and STC was a founding member of the Archie Carr Working Group, a coalition of public and private entities set up to expand, protect, manage and promote the Refuge. STC continues to help secure funds for land acquisition and management, and we directly coordinate a number of habitat improvement programs in the Carr Refuge, including dune restoration projects, beach clean ups and a program that helps beachfront residents convert their lights to the latest turtle-friendly technology. Our annual migration tracking studies of turtles in the refuge are yielding important information about what these turtles do when they leave the Refuge, which helps direct conservation and recovery efforts.
Over the years, STC has worked with Florida lawmakers and county governments to restrict coastal armoring in the area, and we lead ongoing efforts to increase awareness and public support for the Carr Refuge by distributing educational materials, generating media attention, staging public events, conducting guided sea turtle walks and giving presentations to local groups and schools. STC’s educational efforts related to the Carr Refuge expanded further in 2008 with the opening of the Barrier Island Center (BIC), an environmental education center located in the heart of the Carr Refuge that is jointly managed by STC and Brevard County’s Environmentally Endangered Lands Program. With staff and volunteers based year-round at the BIC, STC conducts a variety of programs in partnership with the local community that are building coastal awareness and stewardship for the Carr Refuge and the entire barrier island ecosystem. Without question, STC’s long-term commitment to the Archie Carr Refuge and all the turtle nesting sites in Florida has contributed to the recovery of green turtles we are seeing now. We share in celebrating the good news about green turtles with numerous public and private partners that have also contributed in their own ways—and with STC’s loyal members who have supported our efforts so strongly.