When the late Archie Carr, a pioneering University of Florida ecologist, first began documenting the decline of sea turtles in the 1960s, the future looked grim — particularly for the green turtle.
The green turtle had long been a Florida seafood menu staple, usually served up in the famous soup. But with the population largely eaten out of existence in state waters, most meat had to be imported. To make matters worse, eggs were routinely poached from beach nests. And hatchlings, attracted the lights of growing coastal communities, crawled inland rather than out to sea, dying in the hot sun or under car tires.
At the low point, Carr estimated there were no more than 30 to 40 green turtle nests along the entire Florida coast, its primary nursery ground.
Now, greens are in the midst of an unprecedented nesting boom from South Florida to South Carolina.
With a month left in nesting season, Florida wildlife managers say preliminary numbers show green turtle nesting has more than doubled statewide. Biologists have already tallied a record 11,500 nests in one 20-mile stretch alone — in the national refuge south of Melbourne Beach that bears Carr’s name — doubling a high set only two years ago.
Green turtles, which average 350 pounds when full-grown, have even crawled ashore in not-so-inviting areas like rocky oceanside Elliott Key, giving Biscayne National Park its first documented green turtle nest.
“It’s just a miracle,” said Llewellyn Ehrhart, a University of Central Florida zoologist who has monitored nesting in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge for decades. “This is one of the greatest positive stories in the history of wildlife conservation in America, mostly because they were decimated so badly.”
Ehrhart and state and federal wildlife managers credit a host of save-the-sea-turtle measures enacted over the past few decades for the resurgence of nesting in the southeastern United States. Two other species that most commonly nest in Florida, the loggerhead and leatherback, also have been on a general upward trend, but not one nearly as dramatic as the green turtle.
“It’s very positive, and 20-plus years of conservation efforts are really starting to pay off,” said Ann Marie Lauritsen, acting national sea turtle coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Those efforts include seasonal lighting ordinances adopted by an increasing number of coastal communities to reduce street and building lights that confuse nesting turtles and development restrictions that have preserved crucial nesting sites like the Carr refuge, which Congress created in 1991. Its beach, which straddles Brevard and Indian River counties, typically produces about half the state’s turtle nests.
A ban on gillnets that Florida enacted in 1994 to protect dwindling stocks of redfish, mullet and other shallow-water species probably had a healthy ripple effect on green turtles, which are vegetarians often found foraging in the same sea-grass meadows. Turtle extruder devices fitted to shrimp trawlers that allow turtles to escape nets and death as “by-catch” may have helped as well — but more for deep-water species such as the loggerhead and leatherback.
Ehrhart and Blair Witherington, a scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, believe the rebound really began in 1978, when the green turtle was added to the federal list of endangered species. The declaration banned the harvest of eggs, turtle fishing and any sale of sea turtle meat, domestic or imported. All five of the species that nest in Florida remain on the list today, with the green, leatherback, hawksbill and — rarest of all — Kemp’s Ridley all considered at the highest risk. The loggerhead, the most common turtle, is listed as threatened.