Federal officials have decided that green sea turtles still need protection but not as much as they've had for 38 years.
Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Tuesday made it official in the National Register that such turtles are now officially threatened, not endangered.
Under the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, endangered species are species close to becoming extinct. Threatened species are likely to become endangered in the near future.
Green sea turtles are listed on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's endangered and threatened species list, updated in January. FWC spokesman Bobby Dube said the federal downlisting will not change how the FWC deals with them.
"It's just like the manatees. Even though the turtles have been downgraded, it won't affect them as far as enforcement goes," Dube said.
Still, the downlisting came as a shock to Bette Zirkelbach, manager of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. She believes the turtles should still be listed as endangered due to the high level of fibropapillomatosis found in green sea turtles. Fibropapillomatosis causes internal and external tumors.
"Although the nesting numbers are increasing and that's positive, the disease is increasing," Zirkelbach said. "If we don't continue to protect them, we're going to have a lot more sick sea turtles."
Zirkelbach said 119 green sea turtles came into the Turtle Hospital with the disease in 2015. In 2014, 58 green sea turtles came in with the disease. She attributes the increase in fibropapillomatosis to growing pollution in oceans and increasing water temperatures.
The federal review of the status of green sea turtles came after the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs filed a Feb. 14, 2012, petition with Fish and Wildlife, NOAA and the U.S. Interior Department asking to have the turtles reclassified based on growing turtle nesting worldwide.
"The nesting data of East Island, French Frigate Shoals since 1973 show that the nesting population has shown a continuous increasing trend over 37 seasons, with 67 nesting females in 1973 to 843 nesting females estimated in 2011," the petition states, citing data provided by the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center Marine Turtle Research.
The French Frigate Shoals is an island about 555 miles northwest of Honolulu.
Also Tuesday, NOAA and Fish and Wildlife announced that green sea turtles will be divided into "11 distinct population segments" in 11 distinct global areas where they are known to be.
Green sea turtles in the Mediterranean Sea, central west Pacific and central south Pacific are considered endangered. Green sea turtles found in all other parts of the world are considered threatened.
According to NOAA's website on the green sea turtle, up to 1,100 females nest annually on the coasts of Florida.
"Florida's breeding population falls into the North America DPS and it has had one of the greatest population growths of the 11 DPSs," said Dennis Kelmm, regional sea turtle recovery coordinator for NOAA's southeast regional office in St. Petersburg. "The downlisting won't change their protection."