Two environmental groups are asking the Interior Department to declare loggerhead sea turtles that inhabit the Atlantic coast officially endangered, arguing that tens of thousands of the turtles are killed annually by commercial fishing and because of coastal development.
The loggerhead sea turtle already is classified as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act, but environmentalists say a higher level of protection is needed for the turtles that nest primarily along the southern Atlantic coast and to some extent off the Gulf coast of Florida.
Oceana, a sea life advocacy group, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the Interior Department and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday asking that the Western Atlantic Sea Turtle be declared a sub-specie and officially endangered.
The designation would provide the turtle and its habitat increased protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Loggerhead sea turtles in the western Atlantic "are in grave peril ... their numbers have plummeted to historic lows," the petition states.
Fishing seen as biggest threat
Elizabeth Griffin, a marine wildlife scientist at Oceana, said the biggest threat to the species comes from commercial and sport fishing as turtles often are caught in nets, fishing lines and other devices. The petition says turtles also are killed by ingesting refuse from plastic items to balloons.
Griffin said the turtles nest primarily along the Atlantic coast from Florida to the Carolinas but they migrate as far north as New England. It's uncertain how many turtles there are, but a recent government report said tens of thousands of them are killed every year when caught in fishery nets and lines.
Commercial fishing is the single greatest human threat to the turtles but they also have been harmed by coastal development, which has deprived them of beach habitat and disturbed their nesting, the petition says.
Among the disturbing trends cited by the environmental groups is that loggerhead's nesting in South Florida has declined by 39.5 percent since 1998.
The loggerhead sea turtle can grow to as big as 3.5 feet in length and weigh 400 pounds and live 30 years or more.
The turtle was declared "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act in 1978.
How many is unknown
While its population has been declining, Griffin said the actual number of turtles along the Atlantic coast is unclear. "That's a huge problem," she said in an interview, adding that if the government doesn't know how many there are it can't set a number that it considers acceptable to be killed.
The environmental groups argue in their petition that climate change may put the loggerhead in yet more peril. If sea levels rise along coasts where there is development, beaches the turtles use for nesting may disappear and even a 1 degree temperature increase could significantly affect their reproduction, said Griffin.
"We need to ensure that there are robust and resilient populations of sea turtles that will be able to withstand the new and potentially deadly challenges of climate change," she said.
Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service both have jurisdiction over the Endangered Species Act. Action on the turtle involves both agencies.
Oceana background on sea turtles is online at www.oceana.org/sea-turtles/home/