I just picked up a copy of this book, Saving Sea Turtles, from author James Spotila at the International Sea Turtle Symposium. He was gracious as a sea turtle "rock star," and even put up with a cardboard cutout of him holding his book (originally part of the sales display) being dressed in a sarong and auctioned off to raise money for supporting students at future symposiums. "Little Jim," as it was named, sold for over five hundred dollars, as I remember.
This book is subtitled "Extraordinary stories from the battle against extinction," and that characterizes the structure of this volume. Spotila intertwines his sea turtle-related career with the development of new knowledge regarding sea turtles. It is this mixture of natural history and personal history that makes this volume more interesting than useful. More on this below.
There are seven species of sea turtles presently existing on planet Earth. As Spotila writes, "The year 2000 came and went, and the world had the same number of sea turtles as it had in 1900" (p. 199). That certainly is a victory, and one that required active, not passive, intervention. There have been tremendous efforts by a number of dedicated people, working on everything from the protection of nesting beaches, to the reduction of sea turtle bycatch from a variety of fishing practices, to a fundamental change in the value of sea turtles from a source of food or money to a resource for sustainable ecotourism. Still, even with this gargantuan effort, there are fewer turtles of all species today than in 1900. Increased protections, yes. Decreased populations, yes. Species or distinct populations vulnerable to extinction, yes.
It's a shallow victory. But the sea turtle conservationists take every victory, every successful intervention, that they can get. After all, they'd rather have reduced populations of seven species than robust populations of four, with the other three extinct. Clearly, the battle is not won, and the research and conservation efforts must continue.
Here are some of the interesting tidbits you'll find in this book, with some added comments:
"[Archie Carr] was one of the first activist scientists, a contemporary of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson" (p. 13). I agree, and suspect both Carr and Carson made greater personal sacrifices for conservation, but Leopold gets the label as the founder of conservation biology.
Spotila lists 6 things we all can do to "restore sea turtle populations and preserve a 110-million-year heritage" (p. 13). Also, "lessons learned" (p. 115-116). Pay attention, America!
When Spotila discusses predators on sea turtle eggs, he asks, "In many areas we need to make a choice: Do we want sea turtles or raccoons? Is killing raccoons defensible in an effort to save turtles? I would argue yes, we should drastically reduce the number of raccoons in areas where sea turtles nest, because raccoons are plentiful in many places and not in danger of extinction" (p. 46-47). In general, I agree, but remember that this argument is theoretical. The societal debate in this situation is often dealing with how raccoons are controlled, especially regarding traps or toxicants. So the "how" is a different ethical question than the "why." Conservation biologists need to keep this in mind.
Shrimp -- "The bottom line here is simple: if you eat shrimp, buy American, because those shrimp are caught by boats using TEDS. If you don't know the origin of the shrimp, have pasta instead. Otherwise, to twist an old quote, it's not shrimp you're buying, it's turtle lives" (p. 85). However, there are still hundreds (at least) of sea turtles in the US caught, and many killed, by shrimp trawlers. The TED (turtle excluder device) is not a zero catch technology. The consumer is still culpable here. When will people divorce themselves from inexpensive shrimp? Can the sea turtles survive our appetite for shrimp?
"There is no stronger advocate for sea turtle conservation than a volunteer or a tourist who has had an up-close and personal experience with a sea turtle" (p. 131). Agreed.
Alternative future -- Spotila discusses things we can do to reduce our energy use, and thus have an impact on global climate change (p. 166-167). Also, he suggests more nuclear power plants. Obviously, he wrote this prior to the extensive damage to a number of Japan's nuclear plants because of the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. How can we change our lifestyle so that one additional power plant does not need to be constructed?
"The price of conservation, like liberty, is eternal vigilance" (p. 202). As David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth, stated, "All of our (conservation) victories are temporary. All of our defeats are permanent."
Back to the issue of "It is this mixture of natural history and personal history that makes this volume more interesting than useful." This book reads as a memoir. Spotila fills it with the names of people he has met - students, sea turtle activists, colleagues, politicians - who he has inspired, or who inspired him. The name dropping is relentless, and threatens to overpower the natural history. However, even with this observation, there is material on sea turtle biology here that was not in his previous book, Sea Turtles: A Complete Guide to Their Biology, Behavior, and Conservation. The acquisition of new knowledge of sea turtles did not just happen in a lab, and there are stories (and personalities) that Spotila felt he had to tell.
Saving sea turtles, Spotila argues, happens one beach, one turtle, and one person at a time. This book allows him to elucidate his significant role in the conservation of his beloved sea turtles.