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The Case of the Green Turtle

An Uncensored History of a Conservation Icon

Alison Rieser

Publication Year: 2012

The journals of early maritime explorers traversing the Atlantic Ocean often describe swarms of sea turtles, once a plentiful source of food. Many populations had been decimated by the 1950s, when Archie Carr and others raised public awareness of their plight. One species, the green turtle, has been the most heavily exploited due to international demand for turtle products, especially green turtle soup. The species has achieved some measure of recovery due to thirty years of conservation efforts, but remains endangered. In The Case of the Green Turtle, Alison Rieser provides an unparalleled look into the way science and conservation interact by focusing on the most controversial aspect of green turtle conservation—farming. While proponents argued that farming green sea turtles would help save them, opponents countered that it encouraged a taste for turtle flesh that would lead to the slaughter of wild stocks. The clash of these viewpoints once riveted the world. Rieser relies on her expertise in ocean ecology, policy, and law to reveal how the efforts to preserve sea turtles changed marine conservation and the way we view our role in the environment. Her study of this early conservation controversy will fascinate anyone who cares about sea turtles or the oceans in which they live.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

I’ve long been intrigued by the social behavior of scientists who study marine organisms and the oceans. This fascination probably dates from my years as a “summer kid” in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where one of the highest densities of research scientists aggregates every summer, and where a child could stand in line at the ice cream counter and...

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pp. xi-xii

My debts in writing this book are many, particularly to the three turtle scientists who agreed to read my manuscript to make sure I made no egregious mistakes about turtle biology or ecol ogy: Sally Murphy, David Owens, and Peter Pritchard. Holly Doremus, an expert on the role of science in the Endangered Species Act, took precious time...

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INTRODUCTION: From Seafood to Icon

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pp. 1-13

In the fi eld of marine conservation, one group of species garners disproportionate attention from researchers and government agencies. This group is the sea turtles. To be sure, sea turtles are fascinating creatures to study and observe in the wild. But their power to fascinate is not the only reason they get so much attention. As one observer predicted, by...

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CHAPTER 1. Turtle Kraals and Canneries

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pp. 14-29

Silas Stearns was the fi rst federal fi sheries agent to venture into the state of Texas to study the fi shing industry. Stearns worked for the US Commission of Fish and Fisheries, a body created by the US Congress in 1871 to determine the causes of the scarcity of food fi shes along the Atlantic seaboard. As the scarcity of fi sh spread to other coasts, the fi sh commission’s...

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CHAPTER 2. Turning Turtles on the Great Barrier Reef

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pp. 30-41

By 1895 the Texas and Florida green turtle fi sheries were fi nished. The Key West cannery and the New York soup makers now depended entirely upon shipments of giant green turtles delivered to Florida by the Cayman Island schooners who caught the turtles on the Miskito Bank....

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CHAPTER 3. The Turtle Islands of Sarawak

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pp. 42-61

While the epicures of the Eu ro pe an capitals were acquiring a taste for green turtle soup and thousands of live turtles were exported from the New World, people in the colonial hinterlands prized the green turtle’s eggs as a delicacy. To feed this taste, eggs were systematically harvested from the major turtle rookeries and marketed. To ensure maximum...

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CHAPTER 4. The Gifted Navigators

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pp. 62-75

When Archie Carr rose to give the keynote address to the meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, he had a different group of turtle islands on his mind. Christopher Columbus called them Las Tortugas. The islands were teeming with sea turtles that looked “like little rocks,” Columbus wrote in his journal in May 1503, during his...

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CHAPTER 5. The Geography of Turtle Soup

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pp. 76-85

Another scholar who was drawn to the green turtle was James J. Parsons. Neither a zoologist nor a curator but a geographer from the University of California at Berkeley, Parsons believed a geographer’s place was in the fi eld. He was, in fact, an economic geographer with a regional focus on Latin America. By the mid- 1950s, Parsons had studied...

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CHAPTER 6. A Turtle Flap in London

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pp. 86-95

By 1962, Tom Harrisson was convinced that the green turtle population of Sarawak was crashing. It was true that his Turtle Board staff had collected over a million eggs and sold them at one pound sterling per one hundred. But his pre de ces sor, Edward Banks, had recorded an annual harvest upwards of four million eggs. Harrisson’s annual egg numbers...

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CHAPTER 7. The Buffalo of the Sea

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pp. 96-109

Publication of his own book, The Reptiles, in the Time- Life Nature Library in 1963 gave Archie Carr an occasion to sound the alarm about the disappearing green turtle. It also was a chance to raise, if not answer, a question he would later cross swords over with other turtle scientists, especially John Hendrickson. The question was not about the...

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CHAPTER 8. Who Will Kill the Last Turtle?

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pp. 110-129

Barney Nietschmann knew nothing of the green turtles in Costa Rica or turtle slaughter houses in Nicaragua when the spring 1967 semester ended at the University of Wisconsin. He was about to begin a PhD program in cultural geography and was looking for a place to do his fi eld research. During his master’s degree studies he had taken a fi eld course...

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CHAPTER 9. Red Data for the Green Turtle

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pp. 130-150

The 1967 fi eld season at Tortuguero was Archie Carr’s longest to date. When he returned to Gainesville, Carr faced a mountain of correspondence and neglected paperwork. He felt a tinge of regret that he had spent so much time to see so few turtles return to nest. His most overdue project was to prepare the list of sea turtle species that were threatened...

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CHAPTER 10. Reptiles on the Red List

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pp. 151-164

When the March 1969 meeting in Morges was over, the members of the sea turtle specialists group dispersed to their respective regions and elsewhere, to assemble more data on marine turtle populations of the world and on the global trade that now threatened the green turtle’s survival. Archie Carr went right back to work on the migration...

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CHAPTER 11. You Lost the Turtle Boat

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pp. 165-182

On March 23, 1971, the day the US Supreme Court let the Mason Act’s ban on exotic skins take effect in New York, the merchant vessel A. M. Adams moved slowly up to the wharf at the foot of Margaret Street in Key West, Florida. Built on Grand Cayman Island for Norberg Thompson’s green turtle cannery in Key West, the Adams had been the...

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CHAPTER 12. One Man’s Opinion

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pp. 183-198

In March 1971, when Frank Lund was in Florida marshalling his best evidence for a minimum size rule while hoping for a moratorium, Archie Carr and the other marine turtle specialists were convening again at IUCN headquarters in Morges, Switzerland. Like the fi rst meeting in 1969, this meeting was also funded by the World Wildlife Fund, which...

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CHAPTER 13. Down on the Farm

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pp. 199-212

As soon as he could get a copy of the Interior Department’s proposal to list the green turtle as endangered, Archie Carr sent a letter of support to the Fish and Wildlife Ser vice. Pressed for time, as he always was, Carr kept the letter short. He thought it was probably unnecessary to include data to support the endangered classifi cation. At any rate,...

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CHAPTER 14. Conservation through Commerce

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pp. 213-228

Wayne King was so busy working to defeat Mariculture’s proposed amendment to the Mason Act, New York’s faunal protection law, that he could spend only a bit of time on the petition to the US Department of Interior to list the green turtle. On April 23, 1974, he sent a letter to Secretary of Interior Rogers Morton, asking Interior to list the green turtle as endangered. He knew Interior’s staff had data supporting...

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CHAPTER 15. The Best Available Science

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pp. 229-246

With the California turtle mariculture permit in hand and an enthusiastic buyer, Cayman Turtle Farm needed only to get the federal permit. But the fi nal federal regulations authorizing green turtle mariculture were nowhere to be seen. The Fish and Wildlife Ser vice and the National Marine Fisheries Ser vice could not agree whether the green...

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CHAPTER 16. A Global Strategy

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pp. 247-262

While Richard Lapidus readied his appeal of the district court’s rejection of Cayman Turtle Farm’s suit, the sea turtle conservationists celebrated their successes. By marshaling the available science and the provisions of the Endangered Species Act and CITES, they believed they had vanquished “conservation through commerce” and advanced...

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EPILOGUE: Supply and Demand

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pp. 263-265

The Mittags sold the turtle farm to the Cayman Islands government in 1983. The farm continued to sell turtle meat to local restaurants and expanded the Mittags’ head- starting program, releasing surplus hatchlings and yearlings to restore green turtles to the Ca rib be an and as a popular tourist activity. The Cayman Islands and UK governments...

Appendix A. The 1966 U.S. Classification of Chelonia mydas as Rare and Endangered

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pp. 265

Appendix B. IUCN Principles and Recommendations on Commercial Exploitation of Sea Turtles

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pp. 266-267


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pp. 269-313


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pp. 315-328


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pp. 329-338

E-ISBN-13: 9781421406190
E-ISBN-10: 1421406195
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421405797
Print-ISBN-10: 1421405792

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 34 b&w photos, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2012