Historical commercial exploitation and the current status of Hawaiian green turtles

Kyle S. Van Houtan, John N. Kittinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Biodiversity conservation is often limited by short-term records of abundance, geographic distribution, and population dynamics. Historical information can provide a context for assessing current population status and defining recovery, especially for populations recovering from chronic human overexploitation. Here we analyze three decades (1948-1974) of commercial landings from a green turtle fishery in the Hawaiian Islands. Artisanal and commercial overharvesting drove the population to its listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1978, but the population has since increased and its recovery is being debated. While this turtle fishery was small in scale - with a limited effort, productivity, and revenue - we find dramatic declines in catch per unit effort and a spatial progression that strongly suggest rapid local population depletion. Harvests initially targeted coastal areas near commercial markets but quickly shifted to exploit more remote areas, expanded effort, and increasingly relied on more extractive gears. Additional analyses of economic data, restaurant menus, and expert interviews indicate the fishery was driven by limited, local demand. The seemingly incommensurate scale of the fishery and its impacts reveal the Hawaiian green turtle population was already significantly depleted when commercial fishery began. We describe how historical studies can inform conservation management, including population assessments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)20-27
Number of pages8
JournalBiological Conservation
StatePublished - Feb 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Commercial fisheries
  • Ethnography
  • Historical ecology
  • Hunting
  • Wildlife harvests

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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