After encouraging gains in the 1990s, populations of loggerhead sea turtles are now dropping, primarily because of commercial fishing, according to a federal review.
The report stops short of recommending upgrading the federally threatened species to "endangered" status. But scientists and environmentalists say it should serve as a wake-up call about the future of loggerheads, which can grow to more than 300 pounds and are believed to be one of the oldest species.
"We are very concerned," said Mark Dodd, a wildlife biologist for the state of Georgia. In 2006, the state 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 is not there yet, he said, but it has increased protections for the turtle under its own endangered species law.
The Southeast — Florida in particular — is one of the two largest loggerhead nesting areas in the world; eggs are laid and hatched along beaches from Texas to North Carolina. The other major nesting area is in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman.
Declines all along the coast
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, a five-year status update required under the Endangered Species Act, compiled data from previous local reports, which showed similar trends. It was conducted 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, with mixed results, on five other sea turtles from around the world.
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; some suspect expanding commercial fishing operations are to blame. The report said fisheries are the "most significant manmade factor affecting the conservation and recovery of the loggerhead."
Barbara Schroeder, national sea turtle coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the problem is growing as developing countries bring fishing fleets on line, fishing ships go farther from land and demand for seafood increases.
The loggerhead 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.
Migratory patterns unclear
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. They have opposed construction of sea walls and other beachfront barriers and urged property owners to reduce or eliminate beachfront lights that can disorient hatchlings.
The government intends to issue an updated recovery plan for the turtle in the coming months, but advocates say federal agencies have responded slowly to threats to the species.
Citing the long-term trends confirmed in the new study, they want more money spent to evaluate the loggerhead's migration patterns and its encounters 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.
The report "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. "It's not enough to simply slow down the extinction of these animals. There is an affirmative responsibility to rebuild those populations."