MIAMI - Florida officials are celebrating an unprecedented boom in green turtle nests.
With a month left in nesting season, wildlife officials say the number of green turtle nests have doubled statewide. They have totaled 11,500 nests in one 20-mile stretch in a national refuge near Melbourne Beach.
Back in the 1960s, green turtles had been hunted almost to extinction. At one point, only about 40 nests were counted statewide.
"It's just a miracle," Llewellyn Ehrhart, a University of Central Florida zoologist who has monitored nesting in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge for decades, told The Miami Herald. "This is one of the greatest positive stories in the history of wildlife conservation in America, mostly because they were decimated so badly."
Green turtle nesting also has increased in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and South Florida, officials said.
The green turtles' rebound began in 1978 when they were added to the federal list of endangered species. It became illegal to hunt them, sell their meat or harvest their eggs.
Florida coastal cities also have instituted seasonal lighting ordinances. Turtle hatchlings can get confused by city lights and crawl inland after birth instead of heading out to sea.
"It's very positive, and 20-plus years of conservation efforts are really starting to pay off," said Ann Marie Lauritsen, acting national sea turtle coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Green turtles average 350 pounds when full-grown and can live 60 years or more, though they typically don't breed until they're 20 to 30 years old. The turtles travel hundreds or thousands of miles to nest in the same areas where they hatched.
A state ban on gillnets in 1994 to protect dwindling stocks of redfish, mullet and other shallow-water fish also may have helped green turtles, which are vegetarians and forage in the same sea-grass meadows. Turtle extruder devices fitted to shrimp trawlers, allowing turtles to escape becoming "by-catch," may have helped as well.
Two other turtle species that commonly nest in Florida, the loggerhead and leatherback, also have been rebounding, officials say, but their growth has not been nearly as dramatic as the green turtle's.
In spite of the gains in nesting, green turtles still face dangers such as boat strikes, toxic algae blooms, pollution, habitat loss and potentially fatal freezes.
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