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Loggerhead populations declining

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POSTED: October 10, 2007 5:08 a.m.
WASHINGTON (AP) — After encouraging gains in the 1990s, populations of loggerhead sea turtles are now dropping in the United States, primarily as a result of commercial fishing, a federal review has confirmed.
The report‚ a five-year status update required under the Endangered Species Act‚ stops short of recommending that the federally threatened species be upgraded to “endangered” status. But scientists and environmentalists say it should serve as a wake-up call.
“We are very concerned,” said Mark Dodd, a wildlife biologist for the state of Georgia, which in 2006 counted the third lowest loggerhead nesting total since daily monitoring began in 1989. “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.”
The state isn’t there yet, he said, but it has increased loggerhead protections under its own endangered species law.
The Southeast United States, 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.
According to the federal report, U.S. nestings have dropped almost 7 percent annually in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years. Numbers in south Florida are down about 4 percent annually, while populations in the Carolinas and Georgia have dropped about 2 percent per year.
The review, which compiled data from various sources, was done by the U.S. 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.
The U.S. loggerhead trend is a marked turnaround from the steady or increasing numbers found in the 1990s. In south Florida, for example, nesting studies showed gains of almost 4 percent per year from 1989 to 1998.
Researchers are puzzled by the shift, although some suspect that expanding commercial fishing operations are to blame. The federal report called fisheries the “most significant manmade factor affecting the conservation and recovery of the loggerhead.”
“It’s a growing problem, as developing countries bring their fishing fleets on line, as fishing vessels go farther from land, as human populations grow and demand for seafood increases,” said Barbara Schroeder, national sea turtle coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. “There have been a lot of positive things that have happened but there are a lot of very serious issues that turtles still face.”
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 according to season. Females leave the water only for reproduction, digging nests in the sand, covering them and returning to sea. In nesting season, they can lay hundreds of the small, white, leathery eggs.
The eggs hatch after about two months, and the young turtles crawl to the ocean.
Because little is known of the animal’s migratory patterns, scientists rely largely on nesting numbers to gauge population strength.
Environmental groups and government agencies have worked to raise awareness of the nests in recent years, opposing the construction of sea walls and other beachfront “armoring” and urging property owners during nesting season to reduce or eliminate beachfront lights that can disorient hatchlings.
The government is set to issue an updated recovery plan for the turtle in the coming months, but advocates say federal agencies have been slow to respond to threats to the species.
Citing the new study, they are calling for more funding to evaluate the loggerhead’s migration patterns and its interactions with fishing fleets. Oceana, a worldwide advocacy group that monitors ocean health, is calling for the creation of protected habitats where commercial fishing would not be allowed during certain times of the year.
“I think it raises the bar for the agency to act and to stop the interactions between the sea turtles and the fishing gear,” said Dave Allison, director of Oceana’s campaign to protect sea turtles, said of the report. “It’s not enough to simply slow down the extinction of these animals. There is an affirmative responsibility to rebuild those populations.”
 

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