Photo credit: Kostas Papfitsoros

In 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he and his crew couldn’t sleep because of the perpetual whack of sea turtles bumping against the hull of their ship (or at least that’s how the myth goes). On a subsequent voyage, Columbus’ son discovered a collection of islands that was so rich with turtles that he decided (in a burst of creativity) to dub them “Las Tortugas” (now known as the Cayman Islands). Five hundred years after these voyages, six of the seven sea turtle species are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation. Harvesting of both eggs and adults for consumption, accidental death from entanglement in fishing gear, and rapid beachside development have all played a role in decimating turtle populations across the globe.

But a study published earlier this month in Science shows that over the past few decades this trend of decline has been reversing. A team of international researchers examined data from about 300 nesting sites and found that sea turtle populations are bouncing back from historic lows. “This is a rather unique finding when it comes to marine conservation,” said Antonios Mazaris, the lead researcher of the study and ecologist at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, explaining that in the majority of the nesting sites they were able to identify “a statistically significant positive trend, which means populations seem to be increasing.” Mazaris went on to emphasize what most of us already know: The bulk of species across the planet are experiencing depressing declines. So, at a time when so many plants and animals are getting pushed to the brink of extinction that scientists have announced a sixth mass extinction, what are sea turtle conservationists doing right?

A Hawksbill sea turtle is seen swimming on January 15, 2012 in Lady Elliot Island, Australia. Lady Elliot Island is one of the three island resorts in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMPA) with the highest designated classification of Marine National Park Zone by GBRMPA. Photo credit: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Global Cooperation

“I don’t think you could protect sea turtles unless you had global cooperation,” explained David Godfrey, Executive Director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the world’s oldest sea turtle research group. “Each individual sea turtle can span across many countries, traveling across the globe, and so protection needs to be just as broad.” Mazaris reinforced a similar point, explaining that it’s been a combination of local and international regulations that have allowed sea turtle populations to bounce back, making sea turtle conservation “a success story.”

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Domestic action in the U.S. really started with the Endangered Species Act, which was passed in 1973, and prohibited the harvesting and consumption of most species sea turtles across the entire country (by 1978 the ESA protected all species of sea turtles in U.S. waters). In the years since, the bulk of the world’s nations have passed similar laws, prohibiting the fishing of sea turtles in their own waters. At the the same time, there’s been a massive effort to protect breeding beaches across the world. From creating a huge national park in Costa Rica to a joint U.S. – Mexico project focused on moving sea turtle eggs to safer beaches, these efforts have been large in scale and creative in their execution. There’s even been stories of people forming human walls to guide hatchlings away from bright lights and into the ocean.

But given sea turtles’ highly migratory lifestyle, all of these individual domestic policies wouldn’t amount to much if there wasn’t also a larger international regulation in place. “If you’re protecting sea turtles on the coast of Florida, and you’re kicking ass at it, that’s great,” explained Godfrey. “But if they’re harvesting the hell out of sea turtles in, say, Mexico or Costa Rica…then what are you really doing by protecting turtles in Florida?”

A crowd watches as two loggerhead sea turtles are released back into the wild at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park after they underwent rehabilitation at Miami Seaquarium March 13, 2012 in Key Biscayne, Florida. Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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As domestic sea turtle conservation was really taking off in the 1970s, sea turtles also gained a coveted spot as one of the first animals granted protection under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Their listing under CITES Appendix I explicitly banned the import and export of sea turtle products worldwide. So, even though there are still about 40 countries that allow the harvesting of sea turtles, the degree to which any single country can impact the global populations is significantly limited. “Take Nicaragua for example,” said Godfrey. “Even though Nicaragua doesn’t have a ban on harvesting turtles, and there are still a lot of sea turtles being harvested there right now, it’s only for local consumption, it’s only as many as the local people can eat.”

Of course, there’s still an illegal black market for animal products, including sea turtle shells, but the CITES ban has made these figures nominal. “Before a country like Japan could export legally tons and tons of hawksbill shells,” explained Godfrey. “Now someone can sneak 100 pounds of it across the border, and that sucks, but that’s about it.”

To really understand the positive impact that these domestic and international regulations have had on sea turtle populations, it’s helpful to look at another migratory marine group that hasn’t been as lucky: sharks. While commercial shark fishing and accidental killing due to by-catch has been decimating shark populations for the past few decades, it wasn’t until 2014 that some of the more threatened species of sharks gained protection under U.S. domestic law and international protection under CITES. And even then, these sharks were given only partial protection, under CITES Appendix II, which still allowed some degree of harvesting and international trade. While sea turtle populations have slowly increased over the past few decades, shark populations have plummeted. Scalloped Hammerheads, which are one of the shark populations currently protected under CITES, have declined by an estimated 99% in the past 30 years.

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Appropriate Use of Technology

In the 1980s, despite the U.S. and international laws protecting sea turtles, U.S. fishermen were killing tens of thousands of sea turtles every year. These turtle deaths were a byproduct of the U.S. shrimp trawl fisheries, with sea turtles getting caught in nets and drowning. In response to these alarming casualty figures, the Center for Environmental Education (now known as the Center for Marine Conservation) in collaboration with the National Marine Fisheries Service, began to develop a device that would keep sea turtles out of trawling nets.

By 1987, under pressure from conservation groups, the U.S. passed a regulation requiring all U.S. shrimpers to use Turtle Excluder Devices on their trawlers (TEDs, as they’re known, are a sort of metal grid that attaches to the end of a trawling net and will open if larger animals like sea turtles hit against it). In the following years, the U.S. expanded the law so that any country that wanted to import shrimp to the U.S. had to incorporate some sort of TEDs on their fishing vessels.

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Prior to the implementation of TEDs, over 40,000 sea turtles were estimated to be killed accidentally each year, just in the Gulf of Mexico and Southeastern Atlantic. Now, the global number is down a factor of 10, estimated at 4,600 annually.

A sea turtle escaping from a TED, undated. Photo Credit: Dan Foster/NOAA

Godfrey explained that in the example of TEDs there’s a larger conservation lesson to be learned: the importance of innovation. “The indiscriminate death that shrimp trawlers were bringing to sea turtles in the marine environment were wiping them off the face of the planet, so we went ahead and found a solution for shrimp trawls,” he said. “So, is there an analogous technological fix for, say, wind farms killing migratory birds? Or the by-catch that kills millions of sharks? Or any number of other issues? I would say that there probably is.”

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Getting People To Care

“From the beginning of the history of conservation, it’s typically been the doe-eyed beautiful creatures that capture people’s imagine and wonder,” explained Godfrey. “But turning that wonder into public support is not accidental, it’s been cultivated.” Godfrey went on to cite the lengths to which conservation organizations will go to highlight the plight of these so-called flagship species: documentaries about Gorillas; Instagram accounts for Polar Bears; mock adoptions of endangered species.

A hatchling Loggerhead turtle is released back into the Atlantic Ocean in a joint effort between the Coast Guard and the Gumbo-Limbo Nature Center on July 27, 2015 in Boca Raton, Florida. Photo credit Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

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Godfrey’s organization, the Sea Turtle Conservancy, has worked for decades to not only conduct research into sea turtle conservation, but also gather public support for their projects, to get people to care about sea turtles. One of the biggest money makers for sea turtles has actually been something as simple as creating a Florida license plate with a little sea turtle image on it. These specialty plates cost $23 annually, and, according to Godfrey, have generated millions for sea turtle conservation: “There are 150 specialty tags in Florida, with all kinds of different images and causes on them, and the only one that sells more than the sea turtle tag is the university of Florida.”

Without public support, the establishment of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, which protects the breeding grounds for up to 30% of U.S. loggerhead and green sea turtles, would likely have been impossible. The same thing could be said about implementing TEDs for the shrimp fisheries, as well as any number of conservation efforts worldwide. “They’re are a keystone species, and cultivating public support for sea turtle conservation has been critical to raising millions of dollars and encouraging political support for conservation efforts,” explained Godfrey. “It’s largely due to this support that we’ve had these successes over the past few years.”

Both Mazaris and Godfrey were quick to point out we shouldn’t over emphasize the success of sea turtle conservation; Mazaris explained that while we can be “optimistic” we have to continue our efforts on these long term projects if we want any chance of continuing to conserve sea turtles, especially with the coming pressures of climate change. “This is the key message of our paper: We need to continue to work and protect the species,” said Mazaris. “We have to continue conserving and protecting breeding beaches, enforcing regulation, and also having these long-term projects, which help us understand these animals.”