The coastal inshore waters of North Carolina are an important habitat for loggerhead, green and Kemp’s ridley turtles; occasionally, leatherbacks and hawksbills are also found here. Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds represent one of the largest estuarine systems in the country, second in size only to the Chesapeake Bay, and until the turn of the 20th Century, when sea turtle populations declined dramatically, loggerheads and green turtles were plentiful enough to support a sea turtle fishery. Today sea turtles of various sizes are found in the coastal inshore waters of the state from April through December, moving in from the ocean as water in the sounds and bays warms in the spring and moving out as the water cools in the winter. The majority of these turtles are loggerheads (80%), with a number of greens (14%) and Kemp’s ridleys (6%) as well. Inshore fishermen accidentally catch all three species in the spring and fall, but generally only loggerheads are caught during the summer. Fall catches include a high proportion of small Kemp’s ridleys and green turtles.
Loggerheads in the inshore waters of North Carolina originate from four distinct nesting subpopulations from the Carolinas to the Yucatan, Mexico. Genetic samples have not been undertaken on green turtles yet, but they probably originate from Florida and other Western Atlantic beaches; the Kemp’s ridleys are from Mexico. Twenty years ago immature ridleys found along the Atlantic seaboard were thought to be lost waifs from the Gulf of Mexico. As nesting has increased on the species’ principal beach in Mexico, and numbers of small ridleys have returned to the Gulf from the eastern seaboard, the importance of Atlantic developmental habitat for the Kemp’s ridley has become apparent.
Today, biologists are concerned about high levels of sea turtle capture, injury, and mortality in the inshore waters of North Carolina. Anecdotal reports suggest that fishermen catch two, three or four turtles per day in some areas. Strandings of dead, injured or debilitated live turtles that wash ashore are high in North Carolina, but these numbers represent only a small proportion of the actual mortality. Because currents may carry carcasses away, inaccessible areas are not surveyed, and many stranded animals are not reported. On average about 480 stranded turtles are documented in North Carolina each year, but this number varies considerably. Officials estimate that 2,667 to 5,333 turtles are injured or killed here annually. A little more than a third of all stranded turtles are found inshore; the majority are large juvenile or sub-adult loggerheads, the age-classes that are critical to the ability of a sea turtle population to survive into the future and breed.
In addition to stranding data, information about interactions between sea turtles and fisheries can be obtained from fishery observers, enforcement personnel, and the logbooks of fishermen. However, the lack of fishery observations and enforcement in state waters is an issue of concern. Like other states, North Carolina currently does not observe its state fisheries.
North Carolina has begun to address sea turtle interactions in inshore fisheries through its Marine Fisheries Commission Sea Turtle Advisory Committee (STAC). Established in late 2003 with 10 representatives from commercial and recreational fisheries, the scientific community, federal agencies, the conservation community and academia, the Committee recently made a series of recommendations to the NC Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on ways to minimize sea turtle capture in inshore commercial and recreational fisheries without affecting participants economically.
STAC identified shrimp trawls, gillnet sets (with 5 inch mesh or greater), commercial and recreational rod-and-reel fisheries, and pound nets as gear of primary concern in inshore fisheries; these fisheries operate year-round and are known to interact with sea turtles. The NC Marine Fisheries Commission and NMFS currently are in the process of completing a long-overdue agreement to enforce shrimp trawling regulations in the state’s inshore and offshore waters (state waters extend to three miles). Under federal regulations mandated since 1992, all U.S. shrimp fishermen are required to use turtle excluder devices, or TEDs, at all times to ensure that entrapped turtles can escape the nets before drowning. Without its own enforcement boats, however, NMFS has no way to enforce these regulations in North Carolina and other states. The new agreement will allow NMFS and state personnel to work together to enforce TED regulations in North Carolina.
U.S. fisherman everywhere recognize the potential for lethal sea turtle interactions in gill nets. In 1999 and again in 2000 NC strandings reached an all-time high as hundreds of sea turtles perished in large mesh gill nets in southeastern Pamlico Sound. Subsequently, North Carolina instituted a permanent large-mesh gill net closure in the deep waters of the Sound from September through December; the state has a Section 10 agreement with NMFS under the Endangered Species Act that allows gill net fisheries to continue, but only with numerous restrictions. Gill nets are popular with fishermen throughout the state, including those working the shallow oceanic waters along the Outer Banks. The STAC recommended that the state establish a 2% mandatory observer coverage for all large mesh gill net fisheries in inshore waters, with coverage increasing to ~10% in areas with sea turtle interactions.
Among its other priority recommendations, STAC noted the need for changes in the pound net fishery, such as removing webbing during closed seasons and educating fishermen about resuscitating turtles. Although pound nets in North Carolina appear not to be problematic for loggerheads, small green turtles drown when their heads become caught in the twine webbing of the net.
STAC recognized nine additional types of gear to be concerned about, including butterfly nets and skimmer trawls for shrimp, crab pots and trawls, haul seines, and floating and sinking gillnet sets; the potential for sea turtle interactions with this gear exists. The number of participants in the crab pot fisheries, for example, make it North Carolina’s largest commercial fishery; in terms of catch, it is the state’s second largest fishery. Lastly, STAC determined that 31 types of gear, such as dip nets, were of no concern; most of this gear is used by only a few fishermen, fished in shallow or cold water, or attended at all times.
CCC endorses the recommendations made by STAC and the needs it identified for sea turtle conservation, including collecting more data on the status of non-breeding sea turtles; increasing public involvement in monitoring and strandings; studying post-capture mortality; expanding observer coverage throughout the state; developing gear that retains fish and reduces bycatch; continuing stakeholder and agency cooperation; and evaluating compliance. We will advocate for the implementation of STAC’s recommendations and will encourage the Committee to review offshore fisheries in state waters so that it can make additional recommendations to reduce sea turtle interactions. CCC will continue to monitor and provide comments on these issues as opportunities arise.