Dmitry Marchenko / National Geographic
Hightened awareness on topics like environmental pollution and threats to wildlife lead to positive changes, sometimes all the way up to changes in classification under the Endangered Species Act. We recently reported on the pending reclassification of the Florida manatee from endangered to threatened. Green sea turtles have also been in the news, also having been reclassified. While this is good news, green sea turtles are not out of the woods yet. Continued awareness and action is needed to maintain and further stabilize their conservation status. Most importantly, downgrade in status does not effect changes in the way the laws for their protection are enforced.
Green sea turtle populations are on the rise in Florida and off the pacific coast of Mexico. Green sea turtles get their name from the color of their cartilage and fat, not by the color of their shell. Many actions have lead to their increased population. These include turtle watches that locate and protect nests during breeding season and the use of reusable bags. Discarded plastic bags that enter waterways can look a lot like sea jellies; a staple in the diet of many sea turtles. Although, the green sea turtle predominantly feeds on sea grass and algae, they still dine on the occasional jelly. Further, the reduction of turtles in bycatch, the prohibitions against direct harvest of sea turtles, and the proper disposal of fishing gear have greatly contributed to the population rise.
Out of the eleven different green sea turtle populations, only three found in the Mediterranean Sea, the Central South Pacific and the Central West Pacific Ocean are endangered. Although many subpopulations of green sea turtles are on the rise, they still face a threat that could force them to take a step backwards. Like other turtles, green sea turtles are susceptible to the fibropapillomatosis virus (associated with turtle herpes virus) that causes tumors. Leeches are thought to be the vector that transmits the virus to the turtles. The virus is specific to sea turtles and is characterized by benign neoplastic epithelial fibroblast tumors. While the tumors are not cancerous, they can grow and impede swallowing, breathing, vision, and swimming, leading to fatality. Polluted waters only increase the chance of viral infection. The Turtle hospital in Marathon, Florida recorded 119 infected green sea turtles in 2015.
Green sea turtles still need our protection to rebound and thrive. We can offer protection by reducing and eliminating pollution and damaging consumer waste that can be mistaken for food. While an upgrade in conservation status is a win for the green sea turtle, there are many animals that still need human intervention to eliminate threats that humans created. It is our responsibility as a species to continue to work together to become more environmentally conscious by raising awareness through education, animal protection strategies, and accredited zoological research. Conservation starts here and together, we can make a difference.