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Endangered Green Sea Turtles Return To Florida In Record Numbers

Thousands of the enormous animals showed up to nest at a favorite beach last year.

green-sea-turtle-hatchlingThis baby green sea turtle was one of thousands—possibly millions—that hatched at Florida’s Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in 2015. (Photo: Ursula Dubrick/Sea Turtle Conservancy)

by Emily J. Gertz

There are seven species of sea turtles, and they are all at risk of extinction—pressured bypoaching, pollution, loss of habitat, and climate change.

But the odds for a Florida subpopulation of one sea turtle species have improved enough that wildlife officials are poised to downgrade—slightly—its conservation status on the federal list of endangered species.

Green sea turtles nested in record numbers in 2015 at Florida’s Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, the most important green sea turtle nesting habitat in North America.

Researchers counted 14,152 nests by the time the egg-laying season ended in the fall. That surpassed the previous record of 12,846 clutches, set in 2013, and smashed past yearly totals, which ranged from just under 200 nests in 2001 to 6,023 in 2011.

David Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, led tours during the nesting season, guiding small groups along the beach at night without lights in search of turtles coming out of the water to lay eggs. “From any spot on the beach during the peak of nesting, we might just within eyesight see maybe 10 turtles. And imagine, all these turtles are approaching 300 pounds each. Luckily they don’t move very fast,” he said. “We literally found ourselves at times pinned down by turtles. That’s a phenomenon we have not seen before in Florida.”

Since green sea turtles lay around 75 to 200 eggs per nest, the season may have produced as many as 3 million baby turtles.

green-sea-turtle-inlineOne remote beach on Florida’s Atlantic coast is a key North American nesting site for endangered sea turtles, such as this green sea turtle. (Photo: Robbyn C. Spratt/Sea Turtle Conservancy)

Given how many threats baby turtles face, from hungry gulls to abandoned underwater fishing nets, it’s likely that a fraction of these nestlings will survive to mate and lay eggs of their own. That should still be enough to create fertile nesting seasons in the future.

The number of green turtles nesting at Archie Carr has grown steadily since the refuge was established in 1990, said Godfrey. The improvement reflects the joint efforts of conservationists, government, and residents to reduce light pollution and other human effects on the refuge’s beaches, which are also a key nesting habitat for endangered loggerhead turtles, he said.

“We’re really seeing the fruits of all that work now with the exponential growth in green turtle nesting,” said Godfrey. “That 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.”

The numbers are good enough that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to change the status of this green turtle subpopulation from “endangered” to “threatened” under federal law. “It’s appropriate to review those listings and celebrate when it’s warranted,” Godfrey said. “We don’t want to see protections removed, but we think it’s appropriate that this subpopulation of green turtles no longer be called endangered

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