Sea Turtle Management Programs: Three Case Studies in Philosophies of Organizational Approaches

by Lanna Giauque

University of Denver


Abstract: Methods humans use to manage animal resource populations are uniquely indicative of the human-animal dynamic on this planet. This paper analyzes three sea turtle management programs and their fit with historical American philosophical perspectives on resource management, including both the conservationist and preservationist approaches. Factors considered in this analysis include: length of time the program has been in existence, how the program secures funding and finances, and the types of research and/or outreach completed by the program. This analysis is intended to encourage contemplation on the dramatically different roles humans play in their interactions with animals on this planet.


Human-animal relationships are distinctively indicative of the way human society views and interacts with the natural world, and the ways humans interact with sea turtles is no exception. Sea turtles have existed on this planet relatively unchanged for over 110 million years (Spotila 2011). Since the arrival of Europeans in the Caribbean in the fifteenth century, sea turtle population numbers have seen rapid declines (Hays 2004). While some humans continue practices known to drive sea turtle populations closer to extinction, others develop and maintain organizations and programs with the goal of helping sea turtle populations recover to sustainable levels.

The interesting dynamic in our relationship with these (and all) creatures is deepened by the complexities with which these programs and organizations go about addressing the issue of declining animal populations. Some approaches use the method of conservation described by Susan Cutter and William Renwick as “[t]he wise use or careful management of resources to attain the maximum possible social benefits from them” (2004). Other programs tend more toward the approach of preservation, defined by the pair as the “nonuse of resources; limited resource development for the purpose of saving resources for the future” (Cutter and Renwick 2004). Some programs fall in the middle of these two philosophies.

In this paper, three approaches to sea turtle population management are compared based on original research about their aims and operations. In order to understand the different approaches to sea turtle management, these aims are then discussed using a historical perspective on philosophies of resource management. Overall, it is found that sea turtle management programs take a plethora of forms, and it is argued that the differences between these programs can be attributed to fundamental differences in the philosophies that inform their goals.


Analyses based on in-person structured and unstructured interviews with members of programs, examination of available literature, participant observation, and analysis of available data were all methods used in this inquiry. Site visits to each of the three sea turtle management programs occurred between June and September 2012, each visit lasting between three days and two weeks.

In addition to identifying components unique to each program, the programs were compared based on factors contributing to the achievements of each program including length of program survival, program funding and finances, and types of research and/or outreach completed by the program. This was done in order to investigate the sustainability of the programs as well as the notable differences between them. In order to understand the human approach to conservation, preservation, management, and animal relationships, the approaches taken by the programs were then compared to historical philosophical views on resource management.

Background: Endangered Sea Turtles and Threats to a Keystone Species

Sea turtle populations are in serious decline. Some researchers estimate that in the Caribbean alone, green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) populations—formerly numbering tens of millions—have been reduced by 93-97 percent since the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century (Hays, 2004). There has been a more than 95 percent decrease in leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) numbers in the last 25 years and nesting female loggerhead (Caretta caretta) numbers have seen an 80 percent decline in the last 20 years (Lewison and Crowder, 2006). These numbers are not only alarming because of the questions they raise about human impact on and interaction with the natural environment and its inhabitants, but also because of their implications for ocean ecosystems of which sea turtles are a part. Sea turtles play an important role in the community structures of their habitats and their absence would have adverse effects on their natural ecosystem (Lutz and Musick, 1996).

While the rapid reduction in turtle population numbers was historically a result of humans harvesting sea turtles and their eggs for consumption—and this is still one of the top threats in many locations—other activities are currently impacting populations, including coastal development and degradation[1], artificial beach lighting[2], fishing operations[3], boat strikes[4], pollution[5], fibropapilloma[6], and turtle egg scavenging and consumption by wild and domestic animals[7]. These factors have each contributed to the endangerment status of all species of sea turtles in at least some part of their natural habitat range (NOAA 2013).

The Search for a Solution: Resource Management

Recent studies have shown that management efforts can have rapid and measurable impacts[8]. These indicate that management initiatives, once established and well-executed, can have a measureable influence on the population numbers of endangered species.

Some sea turtle management organizations address the issue by focusing on responsible and sustainable use of sea turtles as a resource, compatible with a conservation philosophy. On the other hand, many organizations focus more on reducing human interactions with sea turtle populations altogether and sustaining those populations for their own intrinsic value as a part of the natural world. This approach is compatible with a preservation philosophy. These differing philosophies result in strong variances among the programs, and produce results that take many forms.

Case Studies in Perspective

To illustrate the often dramatic differences in protection and recovery strategies, and the philosophies that inform them, the first part of this inquiry will focus on three sea turtle management organizations and their approaches to combating the issue of sea turtle endangerment: the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida; the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) in Tortuguero, Costa Rica; and the Cayman Turtle Farm in Grand Cayman. Table 1 shows a summary of the programs.

Table 1 Characteristics of case study organizations

FactorsTurtle HospitalSea Turtle ConservancyCayman Turtle Farm
Date of establishment198619591968
Type of organization 501 (c)(3) nonprofit501 (c)(3) nonprofitFor-profit
LocationMarathon, Florida KeysTortuguero, Costa RicaCayman Islands
Main activitiesRehabilitation, public awarenessResearch; local training and educationMeat production, tourism
Principal sources of funding
   Merchandise SalesX
Raise awareness throughWebsite, brochures,local tour guide recommendations, feature stories in local and national news sourcesWebsite, local community involvementInternet advertising, magazine advertising
Consistent public volunteer programNoYesNo
Main areas of researchTurtle injuries, ailments, and diseasesNesting female biological dataTurtle growth and development
Interaction with turtlesHands-offLimitedDirect
Conservationist vs. PreservationistPreservationistPreservationist with Conservationist approachConservationist


IMG_7679The Turtle Hospital—Marathon, Florida Keys, USA: The strategy of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon to combat declining sea turtle numbers focuses mainly on the rehabilitation of injured turtles, a preservationist approach. Like many other management programs, especially in Florida, the hospital’s approach also incorporates education programs for the public, which are offered daily to visitors of the hospital. The organization further emphasizes research initiatives in conjunction with the University of Florida and Albert Einstein College of Medicine (Morrison and Chatelaine 2010).

The Turtle Hospital receives approximately 250 daily visitors (The Turtle Hospital staff pers. Comm. 2012). It has medical equipment for treating turtles and vehicles used for transportation of injured turtles, and currently maintains pools for both short and long term residents (Morrison and Chatelaine 2010).

The Hospital advertises its rehabilitation efforts and daily tour opportunities through a variety of avenues (Morrison and Chatelaine, 2010). Raising awareness about the organization is important not only for funding purposes, but also because public sightings are the most common way that injured and sick turtles end up at the hospital (The Turtle Hospital staff, pers. comm. 2012).

The Hospital also works with several other sea turtle organizations in the U.S. to share information and sometimes to transport or relocate turtles if the Hospital is unable to accommodate them. IMG_7731Similarly, the education program offered to daily visitors is informative and in-depth, and addresses not only the types of turtles found in the Keys and the major threats to sea turtles today, but also the organization’s efforts to rehabilitate turtles, including instances in which turtles brought to the hospital could not be saved.

While the Hospital’s multifaceted approach allows it to play a role in several different areas of sea turtle management efforts, its main concern is the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of turtles, a philosophy that differs significantly from many other management programs worldwide.

DSCN0155Sea Turtle Conservancy—Tortuguero, Costa Rica: The Sea Turtle Conservancy, or STC (formerly the Caribbean Conservation Corporation), is widely recognized as the oldest sea turtle management and research program in the world (STC 2013) and uses aspects of both preservationist and conservationist philosophies. Instead of the rehabilitation and rescue method used at the Turtle Hospital, STC promotes its use of “rigorous science-based conservation” to work to save sea turtles from extinction (STC 2013). This approach follows the strategies of sea turtle researcher and activist Dr. Archie Carr (Spotila 2011) who was one of the first scientists to conduct research about sea turtles (Davis 2007).

STC focuses on conducting biological research about sea turtles, and has organized or supported research programs across Central America and the American southeast (STC staff pers. comm. 2012). It operates an education center in Costa Rica that is visited by over 20,000 people every year and is a partner to another center in Florida that has over 200,000 visitors per year (STC 2012). In 2012, operations cost approximately 2 million dollars (Sea Turtle Conservancy 2012). STC has developed a detailed website that can be used in classrooms to teach students about sea turtles. More than 500,000 children have used this program to date and, on average, more than 1,600 people visit the STC website every day (STC 2013).

DSCN0039STC’s longest-running initiative is a sea turtle monitoring program in Tortuguero, Costa Rica on one of the most important nesting beaches for green sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere. By tagging and tracking sea turtles for some 50 years, STC has been able to compile an in-depth collection of reproductive and migratory data. (Reiser 2012).  Additionally, future researchers are trained and developed every season by participating as research assistants or eco-volunteers in the collection of biological data from the sea turtle nesting population (STC 2012).

The eco-volunteer program allows for direct participation of the public in data collecting, which means that anyone who is willing to participate has the opportunity to measure females coming ashore to nest and assess them for any visible health issues. Because it allows for public involvement and is one of STC’s main operations, this will be the main program of interest to this assessment.

In addition to the collection of data, the programs initiated in Costa Rica aim to stop the traditional harvest of sea turtles in the area for meat, eggs, and shells. Educational programs are available to the people and government officials, including programs presented in elementary schools every year. STC works with the local community to protect nesting turtles from poachers (STC staff, pers. comm. 2012; Davis 2007).

The local community in Tortuguero historically harvested sea turtles that came ashore to nest for consumption. STC, however, showed the community that ecotourism based on turtle nesting could provide them higher and more sustainable revenue than could turtle meat and products (Davis 2007). This approach gained support in the community and “turtle walks”, which take tourists out on the beach at night to observe the nesting process, have become very popular in Tortuguero (STC staff pers. comm. 2012).

The implementation of all of these programs in Costa Rica led to the recognition of STC’s long-term green sea turtle recovery program in Tortuguero by the Smithsonian Natural History Museum as “one of the world’s greatest marine conservation success stories” (STC 2013). In Saving Sea Turtles, ecologist James Spotila wrote: “Ecotourism supports local communities, builds a support base for the turtles and their protection, and gives sea turtles celebrity status. A high level of public awareness and empathy are needed if sea turtles are to be preserved in this century” (2004).

IMG_8097Cayman Turtle Farm—Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands: The Turtle Farm in Grand Cayman takes another approach to the problem of sea turtle endangerment, informed by the conservation philosophy. It is a 23-acre theme park designed to attract tourists and highlight Caymanian wildlife. It includes an aviary, a caiman exhibit, restaurants, a snorkeling area, and a predator tank, along with hundreds of green sea turtles of various ages and sizes. Some of the younger sea turtles are kept in touch tanks where visitors can hold yearling turtles and have pictures taken with them. Sexually mature turtles inhabit a breeding pond, which lies adjacent to an artificial nesting beach and is filled with seawater circulating through the pond (Arena et al. 2014). The entire facility holds about 9,800 turtles (Arena et al. 2014).

U.S. and British Investors, hoping to develop a method of commercially rearing green sea turtles, started the farm, formerly Mariculture Ltd. (Fosdick 1994). These investors created a precedent for releasing a portion of the farm’s hatchlings while also facilitating research (Fosdick 1994). The Cayman Islands Government purchased the farm and began to operate it as a private company mainly for the purposes of providing meat locally and creating a tourist attraction. It still operates this way today (Fosdick 1994).

IMG_8180The resident turtle population is now self-sustaining, so according to the farm, eggs and turtles from the wild are never added to the resident population (Mustin pers. comm. 2012). The Cayman Turtle Farm is the only large-scale commercial turtle farm in the world (Arena et al. 2014). The majority of the hatchlings at the farm are kept until age 3 or 4, when they are slaughtered for their meat, all of which is sold locally (Mustin pers. comm. 2012). The presence of this meat in the Cayman market is thought to decrease harvest of wild turtles by locals, although this has not been proven conclusively. Turtles not used for meat are kept as breeders to help maintain the farm’s turtle population (Rieser 2012).

Sometimes a portion of a year’s hatchlings are released into the wild after a “headstarting” period in captivity of about a year, a practice that the farm claimed to be successful in restoring wild populations as early as 1973 (Rieser 2012). More than 31,000 turtles hatched on the farm have been released to the wild since 1968, and at least 11 of those females return to Cayman beaches to nest (Mustin pers. comm. 2012). Once the turtles are released, the farm does not maintain any data on them. While wild injured turtles are sometimes brought to the farm for rehabilitation, this is not the main focus of their mission (Mustin pers. comm. 2012).

Most funding for the farm comes directly from the Government of the Cayman Islands as an investment in tourism; it requires an annual subsidy of approximately 10 million dollars from the government to stay open, according to the Cayman News Service (2014). It is the largest land-based tourist attraction on Grand Cayman (Fosdick 1994).

The Turtle Farm has faced criticism since its founding; sea turtle scientist Archie Carr, who worked with STC, initially supported turtle farming as a conservation method, but later changed his views, saying the farms increased the demand for turtle products (Spotila 2011), which could, in turn, actually increase wild harvest (Davis 2007). As the leading sea turtle scientist in the world, Carr’s opinion on the farm held great influence among other scientists, policymakers, and conservation groups (Davis 2007).

An outbreak of fibropapilloma on the farm in the 1980s led to further scrutiny (Davis 2007). A 2014 study also found that resident turtles showed signs of injury, disease, and abnormal behavior (Arena et al. 2014). Additionally, the fact that the turtles came from all over the world means that the ones being hatched have mixed genetics; critics say that releasing some of these mixed-gene turtles to interact with wild populations may be more detrimental than beneficial (Davis 2007). Carr presented other reasons for questioning the release of turtles, saying that after being reared in a captive setting, yearling turtles would not have the skills they would need to survive in the wild, including foraging, traveling, and defending themselves (1967). “Releasing pen-reared sea turtles may possibly be just a laborious way to kill them,” he wrote (Carr 1967).

Analysis: ‘Achievement’ measured by perspective

Each of these programs considers itself successful. They are each well established through many years of operation, able to reliably secure funding, consistent in their public outreach and awareness campaigns, and adept at making a contribution to wild sea turtle population numbers. However, the details of the programs clearly differ significantly. One of the most important differences is that each has specific goals relevant to their individual location and unique geography.

The Turtle Hospital’s main goal, for example, is to “rescue, rehabilitate, release” injured sea turtles. It meets that goal by working to ensure that the sea turtle populations around the Florida Keys stay healthy. Due to the lack of major nesting beaches, this approach to helping sea turtles is likely one of the most relevant approaches available for the area. The relatively large number of turtles that have been rehabilitated and released through the program (over 2,000), along with the large number of annual visitors to the Hospital for its educational presentations, also indicate good practices, a far-reaching impact, and a positive approach to helping sea turtles.

The STC’s approach uses the fact that it is located on the most important green sea turtle nesting beach in the Western Hemisphere to create a useful and in-depth scientific database of information about the turtle populations in Tortuguero, Costa Rica. It has worked to preserve those particular turtle populations by greatly reducing mass harvest and poaching through education in local communities. STC’s outreach has been historically able to reverse consumptive attitudes and show locals that sea turtles can be more valuable as a resource when kept alive for tourism than when killed for consumption.

The Cayman Turtle Farm works to sustainably use sea turtles as a resource without directly impacting wild populations. As it is located in Grand Cayman, another location where sea turtles were traditionally harvested for consumption, the farm claims its production of meat has eliminated harvesting efforts from the wild. Its educational program reaches many locals, especially elementary school children, which may also reduce the harvest of wild turtles in the future. Finally, the farm’s release of a portion of its hatchlings theoretically contributes to the growth of the wild population.

Clearly, each of these programs is tailored to the needs of the communities in which it operates. However, engaging in this type of tailoring also means that the philosophies behind each of the programs are distinctly unique.

Conservation vs. Preservation: philosophies competing for a better world

In order to fully understand the differences in the operations of these three programs, it is necessary to discuss relevant historical philosophies informing their work.

From the time European settlers arrived in North America until the late 1800s, the continent was viewed as a limitless reserve of abundant natural resources. It was only in the 1840s and ‘50s that people such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau started to argue on philosophical grounds against natural destruction, and only in the 1870s—after the forests of North America had been logged practically to disappearance—that the idea of conservation of natural resources emerged. In 1864, George Perkins Marsh, in his book Man and Nature, or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, suggested that natural resources are not endless. By the end of the century, the U.S. government was managing resources through what is now known as the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) (Cutter and Renwick 2004).

Gifford Pinchot, an American with European forestry experience, was appointed the first Chief Forester of the USFS in 1898. He believed that people have a firm place on the earth as caretakers and citizens, and that there should be an “ethic of use” surrounding those roles (Cutter and Renwick 2004). Today the USFS’s mission embodies Pinchot’s philosophy: “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations” (USFS 2008). Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901 and added considerably to the acreage of federally protected lands in both forest reserves and the National Parks (Cutter and Renwick 2004).

Pinchot and Roosevelt are examples of the conservationist approach, based on the idea of using land and resources for the benefit of people. Ideally, the resources are used in a way that best ensures their availability for human use long into the future. That approach later expanded to include the idea that nature can be used in ways that will avoid both exhausting natural resources and impeding any business profits.

While Pinchot and Roosevelt were developing and implementing conservationist practices, the preservationist approach, a very different school of thought in resource management, was emerging in the U.S.

John Muir became the leader of this preservationist approach. He valued nature as a spiritual medium and saw humans as just one part of the natural world (WETA 2009). Muir was active in protecting the Yosemite Valley of California. Throughout his life, he worked for the protection of many other lands and the creation of several other national parks (WETA 2009).

Muir also helped to found the Sierra Club, and served as its first president. The club created a national community that stood behind the idea of land protection. Through his various writings, explorations, and influences in the public mindset, Muir became the leader of the idea of preserving land for the use and enjoyment of future generations. His efforts centered on preventing the extensive use of land, and he championed the idea of preserving it as a part of U.S. history and culture.

Marine management mirrored these approaches and philosophies as naturalists recognized the importance of sustainably managing the ocean. In 1939, during a speech to the Garden Club of America, naturalist Robert Cushman Murphy, one of the early promoters of ocean conservation, said, “the idea behind the new term ‘proper land use’ must, of course, extend its meaning to the sea. The wealth of life in the […] ocean, as it was described by our ancestors, is almost incredible reading today” (Kroll 2008). The preservationist view also had supporters in ocean management. Around the same time, ocean explorer William Beebe popularized the beauty and inspirational qualities of the ocean through his research in a way similar to the work of John Muir (Kroll 2008).

Discussion: Differences in Management Approaches

Not surprisingly, today’s approaches for managing natural resources reflect the historic divide in the philosophical question concerning where exactly the value of natural resources lie. The Cayman Turtle Farm’s rearing of turtles as a resource falls under the traditional conservationist category, as the idea behind the farm’s process is to continue to provide the resource of turtle meat to a community that has traditionally enjoyed it while simultaneously sustaining the resource of sea turtles for the use and enjoyment of future generations.

In contrast, The Turtle Hospital’s approach does not focus on sea turtles as a resource to be used or consumed by people. Instead, it focuses on rehabilitating injured turtles as an attempt to combat the endangered status of the species, simply for the ecological and even intrinsic value of these populations. While the hospital is often referred to as a “conservation” program, its approach does not align with the historical philosophy of conservation; it aligns instead with the historical definition of preservation. Instead of regulating human impact and influence, as the Cayman Turtle Farm does, the Hospital works to mend and minimize that impact altogether.

Interestingly, the Sea Turtle Conservation’s stated mission is to “ensure the survival of sea turtles.” The mission, then, is a mixture of both the conservationist and preservationist approaches. At its core, however, STC’s work is for the benefit and protection of the ecosystems in which sea turtles are a part. This indicates a preservationist agenda. The organization’s approach with the public, however, focuses on teaching locals about the value of sea turtles as a tourism resource as opposed to a food resource. A principal part of this latter program is teaching people the value of sustaining sea turtle populations for use in tourism in the future. Although these efforts place sea turtles in the position of being viewed as a resource to be used by humans, it also puts them in the position of being viewed as a resource that needs to be preserved in its natural environment in order to be used as a resource in the future. Therefore, STC seems to have a preservationist philosophy with a conservationist approach, something that mirrored Archie Carr’s original management vision: “[Carr] expressed ambivalence about farming as an indirect conservation strategy. He much preferred that humanity acknowledge the intrinsic value of reptiles and save them for that reason” (Rieser, 2012, p. 8).

Clearly, though they have been used interchangeably in more recent years, and the most commonly-used term seems to be “conservation,” these historic terms represent very different approaches to resource management. Some strong illustrations of these differing approaches can be seen in two major aspects of each of the sea turtle management programs: human interaction with the turtles and turtle research by each of the organizations.

Interaction with the turtles

Even the way the public is allowed to interact with the turtles involved in these three programs is indicative of the varying approaches to helping sea turtles and interpretations of management best practices (Table 1). Visitors to The Turtle Hospital, for example, have very limited, hands-off interaction with the turtles; they are able to observe from a distance and possibly feed them with no further interaction allowed. In Costa Rica, the STC eco-volunteers have essentially as much interaction with the turtles as field researchers. This means that they have limited contact with the turtles when they measure and assess the females coming ashore to nest. The Cayman Turtle Farm allows for direct interaction, with an actual section of the theme park called “touch tanks” encouraging people to pick up yearling turtles, take pictures with them, and even get into a shallow tank with them.

The Turtle Hospital’s hands-off approach aligns perfectly with its preservationist goals of “rescue, rehabilitation, and release” in that it encourages people to enjoy turtles from afar and allows the turtles to live their lives with limited human interaction. Similarly, STC’s approach in Tortuguero is to interact with the turtles only as much as necessary to get information to help them. This approach also aligns very well with STC’s mission of gaining enough information about sea turtles to help inform the recovery of their population numbers while also establishing programs that help both turtles and people; the approach allows for a certain amount of direct interaction, which is what many tourists want, but limits that interaction to only what will allow for the collection of data. In contrast, the Turtle Farm’s approach aligns with its idea of allowing direct human interaction and consumption, within boundaries. Tourists to the farm, which often include locals, can interact with the turtles in direct, somewhat invasive ways, because the turtles are considered a resource to be used and enjoyed while also being sustained for future use.


While all three organizations conduct some sort of research concerning sea turtles, it too is noticeably varied (Table 1). As could be expected, the research conducted by each of these organizations is indicative of their interpretations of “conservation.” The Turtle Hospital’s research focuses almost entirely on the physical body of sea turtles. Research concerning sea turtle metabolisms helps the Hospital understand recovery times, and investigations into sea turtle biology allows hospital staff to better understand ailments facing the turtles that come into their care. Out of the three programs discussed here, the hospital is the organization most focused on discovering the cause(s) of and cure(s) for fibropapilloma.

Unlike the other two organizations, the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s research is one of its main operational focuses. The research conducted by STC consists mainly of the collection of biological data such as size and numbers of eggs laid by a nesting female. This data is considered important first for its value as a tool for better understanding sea turtles, second for its value as an educational tool, and third for its importance in creating policy and legislation surrounding sea turtle management.

Not surprisingly, the Cayman Turtle Farm’s research focuses almost exclusively on sea turtle development. Topics of research interest include best conditions for a nest to have a high hatch and hatchling survival rate, diet most conducive to rapid growth, and conditions under which mating is most likely to occur. While the research and findings from the farm have been useful to other researchers interested in wild sea turtle behavior and biology, the research is conducted first and foremost for the purpose of improving the farm’s yield (Mustin, pers. comm. 2012). Additionally, due to the differences between wild and captive animals, it has been argued that the Turtle Farm’s research may actually not be helpful in assisting researchers in improving wild population management (Rieser 2012).


While sea turtles (when viewed as a resource) are much less lucrative than oil or trees for logging, and methods for viewing and using them as a resource vary widely, they clearly provide some fundamental value strong enough to human life that dozens of organizations like the ones discussed here exist in an attempt to protect them.

The three resource management programs discussed in this study help exemplify the wide variety of approaches currently being used to address these complex issues related to sea turtle population management, and—more broadly—the human-environment interactions in today’s world. The Turtle Hospital’s preservationist technique, the Turtle Farm’s conservationist approach, and the STC’s unique blend of both help exemplify the fundamental and dramatic differences in philosophies—informed by historical precedents of conservationists and preservationists—that shape and inform natural resource management decisions today. Whether these programs will be able to sustainably reverse declining sea turtle population numbers remains to be seen. However, the very existence of the programs suggests that regardless of the philosophies informing their goals, they all recognize the importance of finding an effective method for managing natural resources—animal and otherwise—far into the future.


I would like to express my sincere thanks to everyone who helped make this work possible. Most importantly, I would like to thank my advisor, Dr. Michael Kerwin, for his support and dedication to not only this project but to my entire education. I would also like to thank Dr. Russell Fielding, who helped shape and inform many of the ideas that emerged here. I am very grateful for my two sources of funding through the University of Denver, including the Partners in Scholarship Summer Research Grant and the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Travel and Research Grant, both of which helped make this research possible. Thank you also to my parents for their constant support and to my wonderful research assistants Alex Johnson and Amelia Davis. Finally, I would like to thank both the University of Denver and its Department of Geography and the Environment for believing in its students enough to make opportunities like this possible.


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[1] Coastal development is a serious threat, as it can cause significant degradation of nesting beach habitat; it is estimated that up to 60% of Florida’s beaches are eroding as a result of development (Godfrey, 2008).

[2] Artificial lighting from coastal development is also a serious issue, as it often causes disorientation of hatchlings. Disorientation, in turn, almost always leads to death through predation, trash entanglement, or even being run over on nearby highways (Spotila, 2004). Estimates of turtle hatchlings lost annually due to disorientation are in the hundreds of thousands. Further, extensive artificial lighting on a beach historically used for nesting may reduce the number of females nesting on the beach to almost zero (Rich and Longcore, 2006).

[3] Fishing operations also present a major threat to sea turtles when discussed cumulatively (Lewison and Crowder, 2006). The location of many of these operations in conjunction with turtle foraging hotspots results in a number of turtles becoming entangled and drowning every year as bycatch in fishing lines and nets (Hays, 2008). Similarly, turtles can ingest or become entangled in discarded monofilament fishing line, which may cause internal damage or severe flipper injuries (Spotila, 2004).

[4] Boat strikes are also a noteworthy cause of turtle mortality, especially in coastal areas like Florida where boating is very popular (Lutz and Musick, 1996). Boat strikes may result in the development of a syndrome referred to as “Bubble Butt,” in which injured turtles develop a permanent air bubble in their shells. This occurs when a collision with a boat forces the air out of their lungs and into their shells, which distorts their equilibrium and makes it impossible for them to dive for food or avoid predators (Morrison and Chatelaine, 2010).

[5] Polluted ocean waters can lead to lethal intestinal impactions when turtles mistake debris for food (Spotila 2011). If the polluted water contains oil or tar from boats, this may also lead to turtle deaths if the chemicals get into their eyes, mouth or lungs (Lutz and Musick, 1996).

[6] Fibropapilloma is a disease that is not well understood and poses a serious threat to all seven species of sea turtles. It is estimated to be present in up to 70% of green turtles (Morrison and Chatelaine, 2010). This virus leads to the development of tumors, which can: blind turtles, making them unable to hunt for food and avoid predators; become so large as to inhibit a turtle’s movement and increase its chance of being hit by a boat or becoming entangled in fishing line; or develop internally and cause death (Spotila, 2004). While the cause of the virus is still unknown, some researchers note that the virus did not become a serious issue until pollution of coastal waters began to increase (Morrison and Chatelaine, 2010).

[7] Egg-collecting poachers, especially in Central America, may collect all the eggs on a single beach if it is left unpatrolled—some studies suggest that egg poaching could be solely responsible for some turtle population declines (Spotila 2011). Village and feral dogs have also been shown to scavenge sea turtle nests worldwide (Ruiz-Izaguirre et al. 2014). Other animals, such as raccoons and coatis, can also play a role in scavenging turtle eggs (Spotila 2011).

[8] For example, management efforts in Hawaii yielded a fourfold increase in nesting numbers in the 30 years following the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 (Hays, 2004).


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