Critically endangered hawksbill turtles: molecular genetics and the broad view of recovery


J. A. Mortimer, Fax: +1208 5674807; E-mail:

Godfrey et al. (2007), in their criticism of the companion papers by Bowen et al. (2007) and Mortimer et al. (2007), suggest that commercial-scale exploitation of the Caribbean hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) would enhance the recovery of this critically endangered species. Although Godfrey et al. (2007) advocate a broad view of sea turtle conservation, they fail to heed their own advice when they reject the primary finding of Bowen et al. (2007) of the need for international cooperation in hawksbill conservation, and instead favour management using a case-by-case (= country-by-country) approach. Arguing that exploitation of regional hawksbills on the foraging grounds of Cuba is not detrimental to nesting populations in the region, they cite evidence that the nesting populations of both the Yucatán Peninsula and Antigua have increased in recent years despite (what they regard as) ‘significant contribution’ of hawksbills from these two nesting populations to the turtle fishery of Cuba as demonstrated by genetic data. In fact, the estimated contribution from Yucatán is 7–15%, and from Antigua only 0–3% (Bowen et al. 2007).

Godfrey et al. (2007) fail to point out that:

  • 1The Yucatán hawksbill population experienced a large and precipitous decline after the increase that Godfrey et al. reported in their citation (Garduño-Andrade et al. 1999) and it has not yet recovered (Abreu-Grobois et al. 2005).
  • 2The recorded increases in the regional nesting populations during the past 15 years have involved very small absolute annual numbers of additional nesting females. Even with recent increases, the annual nesting populations are only of the order of 50 females at Antigua (Richardson et al. 2006), 55 females at Buck Island Reef National Monument in the US Virgin Islands (Z. Hillis-Starr & B. Phillips, unpublished data, cited in Mortimer & Donnelly, in review), and fewer than 900 females at the largest rookery in the region, that of the Yucatán Peninsula (Abreu-Grobois et al. 2005).
  • 3The regional increases have coincided with the decline of the international trade in hawksbill shell (Milliken & Tokunaga 1987; Japanese Trade Statistics), and in particular with the 90% reduction in the annual take of large hawksbills from Cuban waters during the same period — that is down from an annual take of 5000 large hawksbills during 1970–1992 to fewer than 500 large hawksbills since 1995 (Carrillo et al. 1999). Overall, this reduction spared more than 50 000 large hawksbills in the last 12 years, many of which have surely contributed to the increased nesting in the Caribbean. Not only do the data fail to support the contention that the current Cuban take has a benign impact on regional hawksbill population trends, but they suggest that further reduction in the Cuban hawksbill fishery would accelerate the recovery of severely depleted nesting populations (Meylan & Donnelly 1999).

Finally, the statement by Godfrey et al. (2007) that the Critically Endangered status of Eretmochelys imbricata has been the subject of ‘much debate’ is disingenuous as it suggests that this issue is unresolved. In the late 1990s, Godfrey et al. (2007) co-authors, Mrosovsky and Webb, challenged the Critically Endangered listing. At the request of the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group, Meylan and Donnelly (1999) justified the listing. The justification was formally reviewed and the Critically Endangered listing was upheld by the IUCN (IUCN Standards & Petitions Subcommittee 2001).

On 5 June 2007, Cuba announced its intention to institute a voluntary moratorium on its sea turtle fisheries starting next year. We commend Cuba for this decision.