Reviewed by Kelly Heber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Case of the Green Turtle: An Uncensored History of a Conservation Icon by Alison Rieser, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 352pp
Alison Rieser’s new book begins by outlining the history of efforts to conserve the green turtle, depicting its transition from a food source to a beloved conservation icon. Ecologically, green turtles are a bellwether species. Their well-being signifies ocean health while their diseases and population decline reflect oceanic toxicity. They serve as a charismatic symbol behind which people can unite in a broad movement to conserve our oceans.
Rieser begins with a rich historical description of the high demand for green turtle meat, spanning several centuries involving indigenous groups and Columbian-era explorers. The most interesting takeaway from her book is the question of whether, in the face of contemporary demand, a green turtle fishery emphasizing farming could spur conservation. The argument is that farming the species would spare wild populations. Critics assert that any increase in demand would undermine conservation. While leaders of this movement tout the possibility of relabeling the green turtle as the “bison of the sea,” detractors note its role as a conservation symbol.
The book ends by covering the recent push by some to de-list the Hawaiian subspecies of the green turtle so that pilot farming practices could be tested in the Pacific. As a reader, Rieser’s book forced me to reflect on my own ethical stance on endangered species, and if seemingly counterintuitive practices could be better for conservation overall.