Gainesville, Florida— At the most important loggerhead sea turtle nesting beach in the United States, the mood is somber after the conclusion of the 2007 nesting season, when loggerhead nesting reached the lowest total since Florida began keeping official records in the 1980s. This year only 7,896 nests were laid in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Melbourne, Florida. Nesting throughout Florida has declined by nearly 50% since 1998, a year that saw 21,450 loggerhead nests in the Carr Refuge alone. All sea turtles in Florida are listed as endangered or threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The Carr Refuge, named after world-renowned sea turtle biologist Dr. Archie Carr, is the nation’s best indicator of loggerhead nesting populations across the country. About 90% of all loggerhead nesting in the continental United States takes place in Florida, with the highest nesting densities occurring in the Archie Carr Refuge.
Based on statewide nesting numbers just released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the nesting decline is just as dramatic statewide. The decline is 49% since 1998, which was a peak year for loggerhead nesting in Florida. Nest counts for green turtles and leatherback turtles in Florida show an opposite trend over the same period. These two species nest on many of the same beaches in Florida as the loggerhead, but in much smaller numbers. Although the loss of nesting habitat is a significant issue for the long-term future of Florida’s sea turtles, it cannot be blamed as the primary cause of the loggerheads’ decline.
Conservationists and biologists conclude that the major problem is occurring at sea and identify commercial fishing as the prime culprit in the decline of loggerhead nesting. Commercial fishing methods like long lines, gill nets, and scallop dredges are deadly to air-breathing sea turtles that subsequently drown when they are accidentally caught. Known as bycatch, thousands of US loggerhead sea turtles are injured and killed in commercial fisheries each year.
According to a recent posting on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s website discussing the loggerhead decline, “Loggerhead sea turtle deaths in Florida, as indicated by strandings (which include dead or dying turtles found on the beach or in the water) have more than doubled during the past decade. Loggerheads face many threats to their survival. Artificial lighting on nesting beaches causes hatchlings from nests to crawl inland rather than toward the water. On developed beaches, coastal armoring meant to protect buildings from erosion has resulted in the loss of nesting habitat near natural dunes. Throughout the state’s waters, collisions with boats constitute the most common identifiable cause of trauma in sea turtles that wash up dead on Florida beaches.”
When hotel and condominium lighting confuses newly-hatched baby sea turtles, they go in the wrong direction away from the beach and die on highways or dry up on scorching parking lots.
David Godfrey, Executive Director of the Gainesville-based Caribbean Conservation Corporation, the world’s oldest sea turtle conservation group, stated, “We have known loggerheads were declining, but this thorough analysis of data dating back nearly two decades paints a far grimmer picture of the status of loggerhead nesting in Florida and the U.S. The results are alarming, and it is urgent that state and federal agencies strengthen conservation efforts to address the root causes of this decline.”
Godfrey added that much more should be done to safeguard healthy sea turtle nesting beaches if the long-term recovery of loggerhead sea turtle populations is to be realized.
“These turtles are being hammered in the Atlantic fisheries,” Godfrey stated. “While addressing this serious threat, we must also make sure reproductive turtles find good nesting beaches when they return home. Unfortunately, in many areas of Florida sea turtles will return to find miles of sea walls and new beachfront development. We are particularly concerned about a new experimental form of coastal armoring known as geotubes that are installed much farther seaward out on the beach than traditional vertical sea walls.”
Sand-filled geotubes are essentially 1,000-ton sandbags. They are being installed on some of Florida’s most important nesting beaches by homeowners trying to protect properties from coastal erosion. Geotubes can block turtles from nesting or cause them to nest in suboptimal habitat.
The Sea Turtle Conservancy, formerly known as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, is a not-for-profit, 501(c)3 organization based in Florida with offices and projects in several other locations. The Sea Turtle Conservancy is the oldest and most accomplished sea turtle organization in the world. Since its founding in 1959, the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s work has greatly improved the survival outlook for several species of sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy has as its mission the protection of sea turtles and the habitats upon which they depend. To achieve its mission, the Sea Turtle Conservancy uses research, habitat protection, public education, community outreach, networking and advocacy as its basic tools. These tools are applied in both international and domestic programs focusing on geographic areas that are globally important to sea turtle survival. For more information, visit the STC website atwww.conserveturtles.org or call (800) 678-7853.