GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA – Scientists with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) today 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, 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%. 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 Godfey, Executive Director of the Florida-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.”
The FWCC report does not point to 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 states 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 long lining commercial fishing industry. Sea turtles in Florida face many other threats according to the report, including the challenges faced by a booming coastal human population and coastal development.
Juvenile sea turtles travel and forage throughout the Atlantic Ocean after they leave Florida’s 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.
According to Godfrey, the long line fishing industry, which sets millions of hooks on the open seas, has long been a suspect in the loggerhead decline. CCC concludes that the cumulative effects of numerous U.S. Fisheries already permitted to kill thousands of sea turtles incidentally each year are a major source of these declines. The actual number of loggerheads killed annually by U.S. and foreign boats in the Atlantic is taking an enormous toll on the American loggerhead population, a species touted as an Endangered Species success story until only a few years ago.
“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 cutbacks 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.
According to Godfrey, 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.
Godfrey added that much more must be done to safeguard healthy sea turtle nesting beaches.
“These turtles are being hammered in the Atlantic fisheries,” Godfrey said. “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.”
Godfrey concluded, “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.”