Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

The comeback kids

 

OUR OPINION: Florida’s commitment to wildlife helps turtle population rebound

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

Florida’s turtles — loggerhead, leatherback, and especially the green — are back from the brink. Their population has surged after being decimated for decades by poached eggs (sorry!), baby turtles done in by development and adults done in by a taste for soup.

This is no mere feel-good tale about the little hatchlings we like to watch scramble into the sea. Rather, it is a story about a forward-looking ecologist, the diligence of environmental advocates and a state that took conservation seriously enough to pass laws to protect its wildlife. Archie Carr, an ecologist at the University of Florida, started charting the decline of Florida’s turtle population in the 1960s. Eggs were routinely stolen from beach nests. Hatchlings often crawled, not into the ocean, but onto to the hot, traffic-heavy streets, lured by the bright lights. And turtle soup was a popular item on restaurant menus.

By the time Dr. Carr died in 1987, there were only 40 green-turtle nests along Florida’s entire coast. Today, as reported by Herald writer Curtis Morgan, biologists already have counted 11,500 nests in the national refuge near Melbourne Beach — and that’s just along a 20-mile stretch of coastline.

This turnaround took decades to accomplish, and efforts to save the turtle necessarily reached beyond state borders: Many cities along the coast enacted ordinances to reduce street lighting that attracted newly hatched turtles; building curbs help preserve nesting sites; shrimpers’ nets were outfitted with turtle-extruder devices; Congress created refuges.

Florida imposed a ban on gillnets in 1994 to protect threatened stocks of mullet and redfish. As a bonus, turtles were better protected from being inadvertently caught in the broad, all-encompassing nets. One of the biggest boosts came in 1978, when green turtles were put on the federal list of endangered species.

While all Floridians should rejoice — and find valuable lessons in how the quality of environmental and human life are entwined — the resurgence of the turtle should be music to the ears of advocates of the Guy Harvey Foundation, based in Davie.

The foundation funds scientific research and educational programs to encourage conservation and best practices for sustainable marine environments. It’s using Florida as a model to be emulated by environmental advocates in Puerto Rico. In a recent meeting with the Herald Editorial Board, Antonio Fins, the foundation’s executive director, outlined several initiatives on the island to preserve the health of, specifically, the San Juan Estuary, which sits next to the city’s major airport.

Puerto Ricans Annette Ramirez and Israel Umpierre, both attorneys, are spearheading the effort through their nonprofit, Pesca Playa y Ambiente. Earlier this year, they rallied hundreds of volunteers, who picked up and disposed of 20,000 pounds of trash — including computers, TVs and tons of tires — from along this mangrove-lined waterway that offers fabulous tarpon fishing. These characteristics should sound familiar to Floridians.

But Florida is way ahead in protecting its wildlife and natural resources. Ms. Ramirez and Mr. Umpierre would love to see their country similarly ban gillnets and they plan to push for manatee protections and street-light restrictions.

Florida’s story of the turtle still isn’t guaranteed a happy ending. They still face threats from boat strikes, algae blooms and habitat destruction. But the state has set the pace, and it should continue its model behavior.

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