So Excellent a Fishe ~ Sea Turtle Conservation History

Last week I received a publisher’s copy of the newly released 2011 edition of Archie Carr’s book, So Excellent a Fishe, A Natural History of Sea Turtles (University of Florida Press) with a new forward by Karen A. Bjorndal. She is the current Director of the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida. Bjorndal muses on her mentor’s good humor and the invaluable legacy that world-renowned ecologist Dr. Archie Carr left to the field of sea turtle research and conservation. She outlines the progress that scientists have made since Dr. Carr’s book was originally published in 1967, when sea turtle populations were very low.  Sea turtles continue on the endangered species list, but in the case of green turtles, the populations have somewhat recovered since Carr’s field work in the Caribbean in the 1950s and ‘60s. Carr cites the work of his predecessors, offering insights on the improvements and changes over decades of marine and coastal conservation. But what does it have to do with wetlands?

Sea turtle conservation work used to be done solely on shore. This required slogging through creeks and swamps to observe turtle nesting sites. This meant studying the behavior of wetland-dependent predators, including swamp pigs, lizards, wild dogs and jaguars in the coastal scrub, as researchers observed the success rates of the female green turtle and her nesting rituals. It included studies of sea grasses.  It also meant that sea turtle scientists worked in remote, challenging coastal landscapes, self-marooned in the jungles of islets and islands of the Caribbean and off of South America forever waiting for a locally-operated plane to pick them up, transport hundreds of baby turtles, or bring supplies. At least, that was before the U.S. Navy got involved in the mid-1960s, when a naval officer took interest in the unparalleled navigation abilities of sea turtles. Then Carr and his colleagues had assistance—including more dependable planes, provided by the Navy. The adventures and challenges presented by sea turtle conservation work may be partly why Carr uses the word “swamped” on nearly every other page to emphasize the obstacles that both the researchers endured on the landscape and sea turtles faced in their steadfast quest for survival, e.g. “swamped by predators,” which happened to descend from “swamp forests.”

What’s remarkable in reading about Carr’s field work certainly pivots on his ability to postulate and pose theories—many of which were proven true with corroborating data decades later—but notably his sense of humor. Readers learn of all sorts of fascinating experiments. For example, one scientist puts a pair of glasses with colored lenses on a sea turtle to test her preference for colors in the journey between shore and sea. Further, Carr describes the rarely-witnessed violent, near-impossible feat of the male green turtle courting with the female and maneuvering onto her smooth, wet carapace in the waves, surrounded by competing males. These observations led to changes in monitoring programs, in which researchers had previously tagged the carapace, not fully understanding the violent nature of courtship and the likelihood of the male sea turtle removing the metal tags from his mate. In other observations, female green turtles drag logs and marine equipment to shore. Anything that happened to a turtle offshore remained a mystery for the time being. This brought about a new tagging program to help sea turtle conservation researchers gather clues.

In a chapter entitled, Señor Reward Premio, it’s a delight to read the letters Dr. Carr received by fishermen who found tagged sea turtles that were part of a monitoring program. The sea turtles had metal tags with return instructions (in Spanish and English) with the promise of a $5 reward—paid by the U.S. government. The $5 reward program for collecting the tags was very successful, returning far more tags to Carr and his colleagues than prior tagging programs that did not offer a reward. Because of the language barrier, fishermen misinterpreted the directions on the tags and directed letters to Señor Reward Premio, and the University of Florida’s mail system had to get used to Carr’s new alias.  What’s neat about the letters and the eager response of the fishermen is that the value of a sea turtle, especially when poached, at the time exceeded the $5 reward, and yet the fishermen who returned tags wrote of their great interest in the project. They seemed rather proud in participating. The $5 reward program, in essence, swayed the behaviors of some fishermen and sea turtle poaching activities decreased as a result. In general, the presence of sea turtle researchers on Caribbean islands and off the coast of South America (especially Columbia) in the 1950s and ‘60s made poaching less popular, or more readily observed and therefore, less convenient for poachers.  In fact, the title of Carr’s book, So Excellent a Fishe, is a phrase borrowed from a sea turtleconservation law passed by the Bermuda Assembly in 1620.  Considering that sea turtle conservation had been ongoing for over 300 years by the time Dr. Archie Carr and his colleagues began researching green turtles and hawksbills, among other species, it’s fair to say that Carr’s work was groundbreaking.

But he would have put it differently.  He admits that sea turtle conservation researchers are an insecure bunch, especially when asked about the number of sub-species of sea turtles.  Sure, there are seven species of sea turtles: the Loggerhead, the Green Turtle, the Leatherback, the Hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, Olive ridley and the Flatback.  But the jury is still out on the number of sub-species.  The reader will enjoy Carr’s sense of humor and humility, even when he makes remarkable discoveries. In one discussion on the magic number of eggs that a female green turtle lays—100 eggs, not more, not less, Carr says this number is “packed with ecology and evolution.” He further ponders why natural selection did not build “child care” into the ancient sea turtle, as the adult neither cares nor knows the fate of her offspring, to the single-mindedness degree that wild dogs will stand around a nest and eat the eggs as the female is laying them. Perhaps among the most fascinating descriptions in the book is an experiment in which Carr and his colleague set up a glass pane on one side of a sea turtle nest and observed baby green turtles erupt from their shells and climb to the surface in a synchronized phenomenon that Carr calls a “brotherhood” acting as a survival group. They proved that a sea turtle nesting by itself had a dismal fate—and would not make it to the surface. But a hundred eggs in a nest meant dozens of sea turtles used each other instinctually to guide each other out of the nest and to the surf.

Carr credits many of his colleagues with their contributions to sea turtle conservation. Fused with the natural history of sea turtles is the evolution of certain conservation groups, such as the Brotherhood of the Green Turtle, which later became known as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (founded in part by Dr. Carr), and is now called the Sea Turtle Conservancy. This group and several others work to protect sea turtles, including protection of nesting sites on shore. In particular the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, a 20-mile stretch of beach on Florida’s east central coast, was established in 1989. For more information about the book, visit the Wetland Bookshelfor the University of Florida Press.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries just announced new populations of sea turtles (namely the Loggerhead) under the Endangered Species Act:http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/turtles/loggerhead.htm

Mating sea turtles in the Pilbara (Australia Dept. of Conservation)http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-09-02/mating-turtles-in-the-pilbara/2868086

Fact sheet on the Green Turtle:http://www.fws.gov/northflorida/SeaTurtles/Turtle%20Factsheets/green-sea-turtle.htm

Update: NOAA Designates Critical Leatherback Habitat Along West Coast

On January 23rd, NOAA announced the designation of additional critical habitat to provide protection for endangered leatherback sea turtles along the U.S. West Coast.  NOAA is designating 41,914 square miles of marine habitat in the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. The regulation, formally published in theFederal Register on January 26th, will become effective on February 25, 2012.

Tortuguero:Epicenter for Sea Turtle Conservation

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