Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office
Pacific Region
 

Endangered Species in the Pacific Islands

Green Turtle / Chelonia mydas / Honu

Photo of honu The threatened honu is one of seven species of sea turtles found throughout the world. An adult honu carapace (top of shell) can measure more than three feet (one meter) in straight carapace length, and weigh 220 pounds (100 kilograms). This species has a smooth carapace with four pairs of lateral scutes (plates), a single pair of prefrontal scales, and a lower jaw-edge that is coarsely serrated, corresponding to strong grooves and ridges on the inner surface of the upper jaw.
Honu - Photo credit Sandra Hall/USFWS

The term "green" applies not to the external coloration, but to the color of the turtle's subdermal fat. The carapace of adult honu is light to dark brown, sometimes shaded with olive, with radiating wavy or mottled markings of a darker color or with large blotches of dark brown.

Habitat & Behavior:
The honu is found world wide in warm seas. In the Pacific United States and its territories, honu are found along the coasts of Hawai‘i, American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, unincorporated U.S. island possessions, and a small resident group in San Diego Bay, California. Individuals may occasionally be found as far north as Alaska.

The honu occupies three habitat types: open beaches, open sea, and feeding grounds in shallow, protected waters. Upon hatching, the young turtles crawl from the beach to the open ocean. When their shells grow 8-10 inches long, they move to shallow feeding grounds in lagoons, bays, and estuaries. They graze in pastures of sea grasses or algae but may also feed over coral reefs and rocky bottoms. Young honu are omnivorous (eating both animal and plant matter), adults are vegetarians. Growth rates seem to vary depending on where the turtles live.

In Hawai‘i, nesting occurs throughout the Hawaiian archipelago, but over 90 percent occurs at the French Frigate Shoals in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Approximately 200-700 females are estimated to nest annually. Lower level nesting occurs in American Samoa, Guam, CNMI, Midway Atoll, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, and Pearl and Hermes Reef.

Past & Present:
Honu and their eggs were once a food source for native Pacific Islanders. The meat, viscera, and eggs supplied a nutritious and succulent alternative to the more common food sources, such as fish, birds, shellfish, coconuts, breadfruit, and taro. The adult female turtles were especially prized due to their large quantities of fat. The utilization of honu for food and other purposes was often under strict control, usually from some form of island council or tribal chief.

Religious, ceremonial, and other traditional restrictions on the capture, killing, distribution, and consumption of honu played an important role in their utilization. For example, in the Hawaiian Islands there were families that considered the honu to be a personal family deity or "aumakua." Artistic elements of honu have also been featured prominently in some cultures of the Pacific, such as in petroglyphs and tattoo designs.

Honu populations have declined dramatically in the Pacific islands. Overharvest of turtles and eggs by humans is by far the most serious problem. Other threats include habitat loss, capture in fishing nets, boat collisions, and a disease known as fibropapillomatosis. While this species is declining throughout most of the Pacific, in the Hawaiian Islands, honu are demonstrating some encouraging signs of population recovery after 17 years of protective efforts.

Conservation Efforts:
Honu are listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act throughout all areas under U.S. jurisdiction. In the Pacific, the ESA applies to Hawai‘i, Guam, CNMI, American Samoa, and the eight unincorporated U.S. islands (Midway, Wake, Johnston, Palmyra, Kingman, Jarvis, Howland, and Baker). Inclusion of Green Sea Turtles into the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has made it illegal to trade any products made from this species in the U.S. and 130 other countries. The final Recovery Plans for this species was completed by the National Marine Fisheries Service and serve as guidance in actions to recover honu.

 

Last updated: September 20, 2012
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