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Monday, July 15, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Some Turtles Recovering, Others Still in Decline

WASHINGTON (CN) - A status review of sea turtles has sparked a proposal to downlist two populations that have recovered through conservation efforts, but other populations continue to decline. Monday's proposed rule, jointly filed by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, comes in response to a petition submitted by the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs to identify the Hawaiian population as a distinct population segment (DPS), and to delist it under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The agencies implemented a "range-wide" listing for the green turtle as a threatened species under the ESA in 1978, except for the Florida and Mexican Pacific Coast breeding populations, which were listed as endangered. Due to the status review prompted by the petition, the agencies decided to review the Hawaiian population compared to the global population, and now propose to replace the existing species-wide listings, and to list 11 discrete populations separately. This change is now possible due to "advances in genetic studies, and telemetry and tagging data." The reclassification will "provide more tailored conservation efforts globally," the USFWS said in its announcement.

"Years of coordinated conservation efforts have resulted in increasing numbers of turtles nesting in Florida and along the Pacific Coast of Mexico. As a result, the agencies are proposing threatened rather than endangered status for the two DPSs that encompass those breeding populations," the USFWS said. "The Florida and Mexican Pacific Coast breeding populations are encompassed within the North Atlantic and East Pacific DPS respectively."

The turtles are found in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The 11 populations are determined to be separated by "physical, ecological, behavioral and oceanographic factors," according to the proposal. Because the "best available science" supports an endangered listing for three of these populations, the species as a whole no longer warrants the "threatened species" listing. The Mediterranean, Central West Pacific and the Central South Pacific DPSs are proposed as endangered, while the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Southwest Indian, North Indian, East Indian-West Pacific, Southwest Pacific, Central North Pacific and East Pacific DPSs are proposed as threatened populations.

The agencies proposed to grant the petition in part by proposing the Hawaiian population as the Central North Pacific DPS, but, because that population is still threatened "due to its small and narrowly distributed nesting population," they deny the petitioners' request to remove those turtles from ESA protections.

The turtles face threats from entanglement in fishing gear, poaching, sea-level rise and plastic trash in the ocean, according to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an endangered species advocacy group.

Habitat destruction, disease and "overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purposes," pose additional threats, the action noted.

The turtles are long-lived and grow slowly. Though the turtles are known to have long nesting lifespans, the "age-to-maturity for green turtles appears to be the longest of any sea turtle species," and "age at sexual maturity estimates are as high as 35-50 years," according to the proposal. Individual turtles must live a long time before they are able to reproduce, creating yet another challenge to the species' survival.

"The dramatic improvement of green sea turtle populations in U.S. waters, at a time when sea turtle populations in other parts of the world continue to decline, shows that the Endangered Species Act saves wildlife," Miyoko Sakashita, the CBD's oceans program director was quoted as saying in the group's response to the proposal. "Now we have to take big, brave steps to protect sea turtles from threats like climate change and rising seas."

No new critical habitat was proposed at this time, while the agencies continue to gather information for those DPSs within U.S. jurisdiction. The agencies do propose to continue the existing critical habitat designations around Culebra Island, Puerto Rico, for the North Atlantic DPS.Comments and information are due June 22. A public hearing will be held April 8 from 6 to 8 p.m., with an informational open house starting at 5:30 p.m. Requests for additional hearings must be submitted in writing by May 7.

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