edited by Jennifer Sills
LETTERS I BOOKS I POLICYFORUM I EDUCATION FORUM I PERSPECTIVES
Death by the
Life in marginal lands
Sea Turtle Funding Dries Up
IN DECEMBER, AS WE CELEBRATED THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT
and all of its accomplishments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) terminated support for the recovery of an icon: the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii). This sea
turtle nearly slipped into oblivion in the 1980s, and controversial tactics were used to save the
species (1). The Bi-National Recovery Plan for
the Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Program, supported largely by USFWS since 1978, worked
to protect the turtles, their eggs, and their offspring at their primary nesting beaches in
Mexico. As a result of these efforts, the number of nesting females increased exponentially
from only a couple of hundred turtles in 1985
to nearly 10,000 turtles in 2009. This is one
of USFWS’s greatest conservation successes.
Unfortunately, the recovery of the Kemp’s
ridley has come to an abrupt halt. Since 2009,
the population increase has slowed substantially (2); the slowing rate correlates spatially and temporally with multiple natural and anthropogenic stressors in the Gulf of Mexico.
Kemp’s ridley requires continued monitoring and research to assess the impacts of these stressors. Calls for better science in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil
spill have highlighted the need to continue monitoring sea turtle nesting beaches to provide
data such as nest counts and other demographic parameters that are essential to population
assessments (3). Similar recommendations were made by a National Academy of Sciences
Scientists and leaders of nongovernmental organization and industry will meet in November
2014 to develop a plan for continued monitoring and to carry forward the efforts begun by
USFWS almost 40 years ago (5).
The ridley case study exemplifies broader findings of both the efficacy of research and
management funding for pulling species back from the brink of extinction (6, 7) as well as the
apparent trend of stagnant or diminishing funding levels (8, 9). A recent analysis (7) shows that
sadly, global expenditures on biodiversity conservation are woefully inadequate overall and
uneven; nations that underfund conservation research relative to their expected capacity to do
so also show a growth in the extinction status of their mammal faunas over a 12-year period
beginning in 1996. International financial flows to underfunding nations are crucial to stem
biodiversity loss (7), a conclusion that is highly relevant to the ridley as well.
PAMELA PLOTKIN1 AND JOSEPH BERNARDO2
1Department of Oceanography and Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Marine Biology, Texas A&M University, College
Station, TX 77843, USA. 2Department of Biology and Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Marine Biology, Texas A&M
University, College Station, TX 77843, USA.
*Corresponding author. E-mail: email@example.com
1. G. Taubes, Science 256, 614 (1992).
2. B. J. Gallaway et al., “Kemps’ ridley stock assessment project final report” (2013); www.gsmfc.org/publications/Miscellaneous/
3. K. A. Bjorndal et al., Science 331, 537 (2011).
4. National Academy of Sciences, “Assessment of sea-turtle
status and trends: Integrating demography and abundance” (2010); www.nap.edu/catalog/12889.html.
5. Second International Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
Symposium, Brownsville, TX, 18 to 19 November 2014
6. P. J. Ferraro et al., J. Environ. Econ. Manage. 54, 245
7. A. Waldron et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110,
8. V. J. Bakker et al., Conserv. Lett. 3, 435 (2010).
9. Anonymous, “State of financing for biodiversity: Draft
global monitoring report 2012 on the strategy for
resource mobilization under the Convention” (2012);
M. MCNUTT’S EDITORIAL “WHAT AWAITS THE
new NSF director” (6 December 2013,
p. 1145) highlights the high stakes in
Washington’s budgetary and policy crosscurrents. McNutt underscores the sad fact:
“Basic research” is hurting.
One crucial question is whether the
National Science Foundation (NSF) can continue to hold its “basic” banner high. Recall
1965 Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman’s
powerful admission: “Physics is like sex;
sure, it may give some practical results, but
that’s not why we do it.” A great country must
support its geniuses, and the United States
continues to thrive because we have.
NSF must foster the next generation of
world-class talent and those with originality in every field. Does Congress want
only practical outcomes, and right away?
If so, American science may suffocate.
Prioritizing mostly short-term, conventional
paths is a bad national strategy for research.
As McNutt wisely argues, a second critical institutional question now is NSF’s independence. Independence means selecting
fertile fields and supporting the best-of-the-best investigators. NSF’s quality controls, so
well managed in the past, must be sustained,
Nesting Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.