That Case of the Green Turtle: An Uncensored History of a Conservation Icon. Rieser, A. 2012. Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, MD. 338 pp. $45 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-4214-0579-7.

The Man Who Saved Sea Turtles: Archie Carr and the Origins of Conservation Biology. Davis, F.R. 2012. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K. 332 pp. $27.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-1999-1382-4.

Sea Turtles of the Eastern Pacific: Advances in Research and Conservation. Seminoff, J.A. and B.P. Wallace, editors. 2012. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ. 376 pp. $75 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-8165-1158-7.

The history of sea turtle conservation is partly a history of scientific discovery around a fascinating and somewhat cryptic group of species and partly a deeply human story. These 3 books illustrate that duality and will appeal to specific groups of readers, including those interested in tracking the establishment, maturation, and current practices of a conservation community focused on a charismatic taxon. Although each book focuses on a particular theme or issue (turtle farming in the Caribbean, the life and work of Archie Carr, current conservation research efforts on sea turtles in the East Pacific), a single thread links them all: sea turtle conservation has been and probably always will be in part about personalities and politics of the people involved.

In any discussion of the history of sea turtle science and conservation, some clarification of ones’ own standpoint on this complex, politicized, and symbolically laden field is in order. To that end, we begin with a brief personal history from the first author of this review (L.M.C.). In 1994, I traveled to my first International Sea Turtle Symposium, held on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina (U.S.A.). While waiting in an airport lounge browsing a copy of the Marine Turtle Newsletter, I was approached by a white-haired man with a kind smile who interrupted me to ask if I was on my way to the meeting. I explained that I was a PhD student interested in contemporary debates about sustainable use as a conservation strategy, that I had chosen sea turtles as a case study animal, and that I hoped to identify a conservation project to examine in detail while at the meeting. He was animated in his enthusiasm for my project and listed a number of people he thought I should talk to. He provided the basics of his own views on the subject, but was reticent to go into detail. He wanted me to make up my own mind and hinted at the breadth of views on the topic among sea turtle conservationists.

The man was Henk Reichart. Those who read Allison Rieser's book, The Case of the Green Turtle: an Uncensored History of a Conservation Icon, will appreciate the significance of this introduction. When I met him, Henk was one of a handful of conservationists who publicly supported sustainable use as a conservation possibility for sea turtles and continued to engage in a professional community dominated by those who thought otherwise. Henk would later in 1994 receive the Order of the Golden Ark Award from the Prince of Holland for his work on sea turtle conservation in Suriname. On arrival at the 1994 symposium, the first person Henk introduced me to was Nicholas Mrosovsky, another character in Rieser's account and a more outspoken proponent of experimenting with sustainable use than Henk. I then met several other researchers, the second author of this review (M.H.G.) among them, who had worked with Henk in Suriname or in other places where sea turtles or their eggs were used.

On the basis of this initial experience, I found myself wondering whether sea turtles really were a good case study species. I was interested in finding a species for which science, economics, and values interacted in complex ways to inform policy making and to reveal the politics thereof. As charismatic megafauna, with a documented controversy surrounding commercial sea turtle farming at Cayman Turtle Farm (CTF), sea turtles had seemed like a good candidate species. However, despite Henk's suggestion at the airport that views on the subject of use were varied, the first people I met at an international meeting seemed not only sympathetic to the possibilities of sustainable use, they worked in places where use was happening. And then, in one memorable moment, balance to my view of the sea turtle conservation community was restored. When at a social event my new acquaintance, Nicholas Mrosovsky, left his seat next to me to speak to a colleague, I felt a hand on my shoulder and a head press close to mine. A voice, which after 18 years I still describe as vitriolic, hissed into my ear: “Why are you working with Nicholas?” Sea turtles proved to be a good case study species after all.

Sea turtle science has come a long way from the early days described by Rieser, when in the 1950s Tom Harrisson and Jim Hendrickson in Sarawak, Malaysia, and Archie Carr in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, were experimenting with tagging turtles (chapters 3 and 4). Several chapters in the edited volume by Jeffrey Seminoff and Bryan Wallace, Sea Turtles of the Eastern Pacific: Advances in Research and Conservation, provide some examples of this progress and show how the practice of science has often been explicitly linked to conservation goals. These practices include the use of satellite tags to monitor where sea turtles go and what areas they use as a means of describing migratory corridors or essential habitats (chapters 4, 8, 10, and 12); modeling ocean and climate processes at a regional level to illustrate links between marine turtle reproductive output and habitat conditions (chapter 2); and modifying fishing gear, such as using circle hooks or setting lines deeper than turtles swim, as a way to reduce bycatch (chapter 6).

Notably, the science has come a long way in only some directions. As detailed by Rieser, early, more manipulative experiments (e.g., in captive rearing, head starting, relocating hatchlings, or farming and ranching turtles), which were subject of much debate, were largely abandoned by the 1980s after U.S.-based environmentalists pushed for and, via legal mechanisms such as the Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), institutionalized more conservative approaches to conservation. Nevertheless, sea turtle conservation in the East Pacific has had its share of internal political struggles, such as the lively debate over the validity of distinct species status for eastern Pacific green turtles (i.e., the black turtle) (Bowen & Karl 1999; Pritchard 1999) and the acceptability of the legal egg harvest in Ostional, Costa Rica (Spotila 2004; Mrosovsky 1997a). And yet, these debates do not figure prominently in Seminoff and Wallace's book; rather, the emphasis is on protection achievements via national and international laws, protected areas, local communities, etc. Although most chapters acknowledge that threats remain to sea turtles in the region, the general emphasis is optimistic, particularly with respect to integrating local communities and groups into conservation projects (the first chapter refers to it as the “bottom up” strategy).

If the politics associated with sea turtle conservation receive little attention in Seminoff and Wallace's book, the opposite is true of Rieser's, and it is in describing personalities and politics in detail that her book might count as uncensored. Although recognizing their intelligence and commitment, and at times perhaps unduly influenced by Archie Carr (particularly in the middle chapters of the book), Rieser does not hold back from revealing the pride, flaws, and egos of many of the main characters associated with sea turtle research and conservation. Tom Harrisson takes credit for John Hendrickson's tagging innovations in Sarawak (chapter 3). Leo Brongersma and Robert Bustard are annoyed when Carr, without consultation, presents Peter Pritchard as the top candidate for a staff position with the newly formed Marine Turtle Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Committee (MTSG) (chapter 9). Nicholas Mrosovsky refuses financial support from the IUCN for the Marine Turtle Newsletter because it is offered conditionally, pending editorial oversight (chapter 16).

In the story of CTF, the politics are most pronounced. David Ehrenfeld refuses to join a fact-finding mission to the farm because he believed it unethical to accept hospitality from an organization he has decided against, a more honest posture, perhaps, than those who attended with their minds made up and left before meeting the farm's chief scientist (chapter 14). TRAFFIC (the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network) accuses CTF of buying and reselling black market turtle products disguised as their own (chapter 15). Judith Mittag, CTF's second owner and sea turtle enthusiast, is treated poorly by any measure, snubbed, vilified, and accused of illegal activity (chapter 16). Those sympathetic to the possibilities of farming are often excluded from important meetings and the veracity of their research is questioned (chapter 16).

Rieser's account resonates with what we have been told by many of the people involved: the battle over CTF, though a victory for preservationists, came at a cost to the broader community. Integrity, professionalism, and collegiality were needed, but found wanting. Although the sea turtle conservation community has since avoided controversies as great as that over CTF, the rifts established at the time have reasserted themselves in the face of similar issues (e.g., efforts to ranch hawksbill sea turtles [Eretmochelys imbricata] in Cuba [Richardson 2000] and related status assessments of the species [Campbell 2012]).

Like Rieser, Frederick Rowe Davis is interested in legacy, although this time of one person. In The Man Who Saved Sea Turtles: Archie Carr and the Origins of Conservation Biology, Davis argues that Archie Carr's legacy extends beyond sea turtles to conservation biology itself. This is largely evidenced by the impressive list of graduate students Carr supervised (presented in an appendix) who later became well-known researchers in other realms of conservation. Another of Carr's legacies detailed by Davis is the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (chapters 7 and 8), established in 1959 and now named the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC). One of the STC's roles is to monitor and protect the green turtle nesting population in Tortuguero, where annual nest numbers have been increasing for the past 2 decades. Over 180,000 nests were documented in 2010, which is up from <30,000 nests in 1992. The kind of long-term data collection at Tortuguero is unusual, and given the life history of green turtles, which can take several decades to mature, it offers insights into population dynamics over time that are available in few places (e.g., Troeng & Rankin 2005). Perhaps as importantly, the STC offers training and field experience opportunities to aspiring sea turtle conservationists and scientists, many of whom are students from the region (chapter 11).

It is Carr's role in the MTSG and debates about sea turtle farming and ranching (mariculture) that links Davis’ work to Rieser's. Carr's role in establishing the MTSG is part of his legacy, one Davis argues, that has been crucial to successful sea turtle conservation (chapter 8 and Davis [2005]). The principle function of the MTSG is to produce the justifications for IUCN Red List categorizations of threat to sea turtle species, a process that has been problematic for the MTSG throughout its history (Mrosovsky 1997b; Godfrey & Godley 2008; Seminoff & Shanker 2008; Campbell 2012). Even Carr, Davis reveals, thought there were insufficient data available to produce Red-List categorizations for sea turtle populations and was remiss as chair of the MTSG in producing Red-List justifications before set deadlines.

Red Lists inform national and international efforts to manage sea turtles and are implicated in debates about sea turtle mariculture. For example, the classification of green turtles under CITES Appendix I is informed by their Red-List status and was relevant to debates about CTF. Davis briefly describes in chapter 8 how Carr's initial promotion of sustainable use of green turtles through mariculture transformed into a more cautious and preservationist approach. Carr's main concern was that commercialization of turtle products by CTF would stimulate demand that could be met only by harvesting wild turtles, which he thought was inherently unsustainable (chapter 8). Davis asserts that because of his reputation and role as chair of the MTSG, Carr's opposition to CTF influenced the views of others and contributed to the demise of CTF as a commercially viable enterprise (see also, Fosdick & Fosdick 1994). Thus, a preservationist approach within the MTSG is also part of Carr's legacy. Whether this outcome is desirable or not, as Rieser notes, changes to U.S. and international law that led to the closures of sea turtle farms and ranches meant that questions about mariculture and its effects on sea turtle conservation were never answered.

Preservation continues to dominate current approaches to managing sea turtles, as evidenced in the way conservation problems and solutions are defined in many chapters in Seminoff and Wallace's book. The introductory first chapter states that directed take of turtles or their eggs from nesting beaches or coastal waters has been the principal threat in the region, and subsequent chapters provide specific examples of reducing or eliminating directed take, such as through legislation (chapters 7, 8, and 11), and engaging local people to participate in conservation research or monitoring (chapters 8–12). This is mirrored in the efforts to reduce incidental capture of sea turtles in fishing gear (the other principal threat identified in the first chapter). Chapter 12 describes bringing together fishers from 3 different countries with the goal of reducing sea turtle bycatch through increased awareness of sea turtles and sharing of experiences. Chapter 6 describes various approaches to reducing sea turtle mortality from incidental captures in long-line fishing gear: changing where gear is deployed, altering bait, replacing J-hooks with circle hooks, instituting effective hook-removal and resuscitation techniques. Chapter 13, the last in the book, discusses the population dynamics of olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) nesting assemblages in the region and is the only chapter to acknowledge that harvest of sea turtles (in this case, eggs laid during an arribada, when tens of thousands of female turtles emerge synchronously to lay eggs along a small stretch of sandy beach) may be sustainable in certain cases.

But what is the importance of these books to current conservation? One answer to this question is that they place current conservation practices and policies in context, at least in terms of sea turtles. One could speculate whether the MTSG might have been more receptive to sustainable use, like its congener, the Crocodile Specialist Group, had the leadership personalities been different. However, perhaps a more constructive question to ask is whether the sea turtle conservation community has moved forward in the way it deals with disputes and debates, to allow for dialogue among various voices. Only time will tell, but looking back at the way things were, may help inform those involved in thorny debates, at least in terms of encouraging positive and constructive interactions among members of the wider conservation community.

Literature Cited

  1. Top of page
  2. Literature Cited
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