WASHINGTON, Sept. 22 (AP) — After encouraging gains in the 1990s, a federal report now shows populations of loggerhead sea turtles dropping, possibly as a result of commercial fishing.
The report, a five-year status update required under the Endangered Species Act, did not change the turtles’ status to endangered from threatened, but scientists and environmentalists said it was a cause for concern.
“As a biologist you’re always trying to find that point at which we really have to start doing something drastic if we want to maintain loggerhead populations on our beaches,” said Mark Dodd, a state biologist in Georgia, where the loggerhead nesting count in 2006 was the third lowest since daily monitoring began in 1989.
The Southeast, particularly Florida, is one of the two largest loggerhead nesting areas in the world — with eggs laid and hatched along beaches from Texas to North Carolina. Oman is the other major nesting area.
The report showed nestings in the United States dropping about 7 percent a year on the Gulf of Mexico. In southern Florida, nestings were down about 4 percent a year, and populations in the Carolinas and Georgia have dropped about 2 percent a year.
The decline among the loggerheads was a turnaround from the 1990s. In South Florida, nesting studies had shown gains of about 4 percent per year from 1989 to 1998.
Researchers were puzzled by the change, but some said it might be a result of expanded commercial fishing operations. The federal report called fisheries the “most significant man-made factor affecting the conservation and recovery of the loggerhead.”
The loggerhead, believed to be one of the world’s oldest species, can grow to more than 300 pounds and lives most of its life in the sea, migrating vast distances.
Females leave the water only to dig nests on the beach, lay their small white, leathery eggs, and cover them with sand. Then they return to the sea. In nesting season, they can lay hundreds of eggs.
The eggs hatch after about two months, and the young turtles crawl to the ocean.
Environmental groups and government agencies have worked to raise awareness of the nests, opposing the construction of sea walls and other beachfront obstructions and urging property owners during nesting season to reduce or eliminate beachfront lights, which can disorient the hatchlings.
The report was compiled from various sources by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which jointly have jurisdiction over protecting the turtles. The agencies also issued updates on five other sea turtles from around the world, with mixed results.