Loggerhead Sea Turtle Nesting in Steep Decline

Issue 4, 2006 Articles:

* Loggerhead Sea Turtle Nesting in Steep Decline
* The Wait is Over—Construction Starts on Barrier Island Sanctuary and Education Center

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Loggerhead Sea Turtle Nesting in Steep Decline

Scientists with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) recently released a research report concluding that the United States’ largest remaining loggerhead sea turtle rookery is in steep decline. In the report, which was posted on FWCC’s website (http://research.myfwc.com), scientists analyzed 17 years of sea turtle nesting data and found that since 1989, nest counts have declined 22% throughout Florida. Since 1998, in just seven years, nesting at Florida’s most important nesting beaches all over the state have declined 40%. Preliminary numbers for the 2006 nesting season suggest another bad year, possibly the second lowest on record. Florida accounts for 90% of the loggerhead nesting in the U.S., with one nesting aggregation on the beaches of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge on the Atlantic coast considered to be one of the two largest remaining in the world.

David Godfrey, Caribbean Conservation Corporation’s Executive Director, 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.”

Graph provided by the FWCC Florida Wildlife Research Institute.

The FWCC report does not identify any conclusive cause of the decline, but points a finger at the many threats facing loggerheads at sea and when they return to Florida beaches to nest. The report states that recent hurricanes are not the cause of the decline. Loggerheads that hatch on Florida beaches take 20-30 years to reach maturity, so recent storm impacts would not be seen in the nesting population for decades. The report suggests that threats occurring far from the state’s waters and beaches, in the open Atlantic Ocean, may be the major cause of the decline. These threats include drowning in fishing trawls and incidental capture by the longline commercial fishing industry. Sea turtles in Florida face many other threats according to the report, including the challenges created by a booming coastal human population and coastal development.The longline fishing industry, which sets millions of hooks on the open seas, has long been a suspect in the loggerhead decline. U.S. fisheries are already allowed under federal regulations to kill thousands of sea turtles a year. The actual number of loggerheads killed each year is very high, especially when you factor in the mortality of all the international fishing fleets operating in the North Atlantic.

Juvenile sea turtles travel and forage throughout the Atlantic Ocean after they hatch from Florida beaches. The FWCC report notes that both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have management oversight in the marine environment beyond Florida’s beaches.

“Sea turtles are ambassadors of the sea,” Godfrey said. “Their drastic decline should be a wake up call to policy makers, conservationists and everyone who cares about the loss of marine biodiversity.”

This report comes on the heels of a recent press release from the USFWS announcing a 70% staffing cutback at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, including all the scientific and public outreach staff. The refuge was established to protect the most heavily nested loggerhead turtle nesting beaches in the Western Hemisphere.

The federal government appears to be abandoning support for the Carr Refuge at just the time when sea turtles are in desperate need of increased protection. Much more must be done to safeguard healthy sea turtle nesting beaches.

“These turtles are being hammered in fisheries at sea,” Godfrey said. “While addressing this serious threat, we must also make sure reproductive turtles find good nesting beaches when they return home. Right now, they are returning to find miles of sea walls and new beachfront development.”

Florida’s globally important turtle nesting beaches face the triple threat of natural erosion, hurricanes and sea level rise. At the same time, the fragile coastline is under intense development pressure, and sea turtles are caught in the middle. With loggerhead numbers now in steep decline, it becomes even more important that the new Congress and elected leaders in Florida take steps to increase protections for sea turtles and their nesting beaches.