The green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) of Florida and Mexico are now classified as "threatened" instead of "endangered," a positive step forward for conservationists that have been working hard for decades to save the dwindling populations of the sea creatures. Although they still require protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) claims that they do not face an imminent risk of extinction.
Approximately 2,250 nesting green sea turtle females are present on Florida beaches each year, a big improvement from the handful counted back in 1978, the year that their populations were first listed as endangered.
The U.S. FWS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the change on Tuesday and have since divided the species into 11 unique population regions, a move that they hope will help conservationists develop "tailored conservation approaches for each population."
While most of the world's green sea turtles are now listed as threatened, three populations are considered endangered and face the highest risk of extinction: those in the Mediterranean Sea and the Central South Pacific and Central West Pacific Ocean.
"Successful conservation and management efforts developed in Florida and along the Pacific coast of Mexico are a roadmap for further recovery strategies of green turtle populations around the world," said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries.
Some of these efforts include a ban on harvesting the species and the preservation of the beaches that they inhabit.
Despite the positive news, numerous challenges still remain, including climate change and sea level rise, which could lead to the erosion of the species' beach nesting habitats as well as increase the temperature of their sand, a process that can throw sex ratios into disarray and create deadly incubation conditions.
In addition, a herpes-related virus called fibropapillomatosis (FP) commonly affects young green sea turtles and can cause tumors that eventually lead to their demise.
"We acknowledge the increasing distribution and incidence of FP, particularly in Florida," the U.S. FWS and NOAA said, adding that "the threat is likely to increase" as the human pollution of the shores progresses.
However, with continued efforts, experts are hopeful that they will continue to make progress and the remaining three green sea turtle populations considered endangered will also recover.
"The undeniable recovery of most green sea turtle populations creates a hopeful spot in our changing oceans," said Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.