Rare loggerhead sea turtles are having a record nesting season on the Georgia coast and have been laying eggs in promising numbers on southern Atlantic beaches from Florida to the Carolinas.
Still, biologists warn the population of mammoth turtles, which weigh up to 300 pounds, remains fragile. And the federal government is considering a proposal to classify loggerheads as endangered after 30 years of listing them as a threatened species.
Along the 100-mile Georgia coast, biologists and volunteers working with the state Department of Natural Resources have counted 1,544 loggerhead nests since the nesting season began May 1.
That's the most turtle nests recorded since Georgia began keeping count in 1989, breaking the previous record of 1,504 nests in 2003. And new nests discovered since August 1, the final month of the season, haven't been tallied yet.
Mark Dodd, the biologist in charge of the Georgia sea turtle recovery program, said he suspects the state will top 1,600 nests by the end of the season. That's still short of the state goal of 2,000 nests per year for 25 years.
"It's good news and we're going to definitely pat ourselves on the back because of it," Dodd said. "But it's a long haul and we've got a long way to go."
Researchers use nest counts as a barometer for the overall loggerhead population, as the turtles spend most of the year at sea. Each summer, turtle watchers comb the beaches from Florida to North Carolina to look for new nests, marking them and adding a wire-mesh cover to keep out predators.
About 90 percent of loggerhead nests in the U.S. are found in Florida, which had its worst nesting season since 1989 last year. Florida biologists counted 28,074 nests in 2007, less than half the state's peak of 59,918 in 1998.
Beth Brost, who compiles sea turtle nesting data for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said no numbers have been tallied so far this year. She said nesting appears to have increased on the 28 beaches Florida uses to compare year-to-year progress.
"It's not up substantially, but it is up, which is always a good thing," Brost said. "Overall, the trend has been a decline."
In South Carolina, sea turtle program coordinator DuBose Griffin said she expects 4,000 to 4,500 loggerhead nests by the end of the month, which would be one of the state's best nesting years since 1980.
North Carolina sea turtle biologist Matthew Godfrey said nesting there has been above average, with nearly 800 nests counted so far.
Researchers say the nesting increase could be the result of the turtle's natural reproductive cycle. Female loggerheads typically lay eggs once every two or three years — causing nesting trends to fluctuate year to year.
Dodd said a sharp decline in shrimp boats trawling off the Georgia coast, because of high fuel costs and low market prices, this year may have contributed to Georgia seeing so many nests. Boat collisions and fishing net entanglements are the top killers of loggerheads.
Overall, the loggerhead sea turtle population remains so low that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service could declare loggerheads an endangered species in the U.S. next year. The species has been listed as threatened, a less-critical classification, since 1978.
Sandy MacPherson, national sea turtle coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said a team of biologists must first determine if loggerheads nesting in the U.S. are genetically distinct enough to be considered separately from the worldwide population. If so, she said, the agencies could list them as endangered in early 2009.
"Certainly the last nine years in Florida, in particular, have been a concern," MacPherson said. "We've seen a substantial decline over that time period. It certainly sends up a lot of red flags."