agencies propose to move North Carolina’s loggerheads to endangered list
By PAT GARBER
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service and
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last month their intent
to seek a change in status for the loggerhead sea turtles that are
found in the waters off North Carolina and nest on coastal beaches.
The services proposed to change the turtle’s status from threatened to
endangered, giving the animals increased protection.
The change could have far-reaching consequences on the Outer Banks,
especially for fishermen.
The public has an opportunity to comment on the changes until June 14.
The services said last month that a comprehensive study by expert
scientists determined that the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta
), formerly considered one species, may in fact be nine separate
species or DPSs (distinct population segments). The loggerhead is
currently listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened.
The new determination would list two of the newly declared species as
threatened and the other seven as endangered.
Among the turtles proposed for listing as endangered is the Northwest
Atlantic Ocean loggerhead -- the sea turtle that frequents the waters
along the Outer Banks.
Loggerheads, along with green and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, have been
much in the news this past winter, as thousands have been stranded on
shorelines along the Atlantic Ocean and eastern sounds. Unusually cold
temperatures and high winds were blamed for causing the cold-stunned
turtles to wash up on beaches, where some were rescued and many more
About 300 sea turtles have been stranded on Cape Hatteras National
Seashore beaches since Dec. 1, and about 100 in one day on Portsmouth
Island. Nineteen live cold-stunned turtles, mostly
were rescued on Ocracoke’s ocean beaches in early February.
Prior to the new findings on the loggerhead, six species of sea turtles
were identified worldwide and protected under the Endangered Species
Act. Five of the six species -- loggerheads, greens, leatherbacks,
hawksbills, and the most endangered, the Kemp’s ridley -- frequent the
waters of the Outer Banks and nest on the beaches here.
Sea turtles are some of the most mysterious, fascinating, and well
loved of ocean dwellers. They are among the largest living reptiles,
and even though they spend almost their entire lives in the oceans of
the world, they must come to the surface to breathe air and lumber up
on sandy beaches to lay their eggs. Clumsy and slow on land, they are
graceful swimmers in the water.
Loggerheads, the most common of the sea turtles found along North
Carolina’s coast, are reddish brown in color and have large heads. They
are medium- to large-sized, reaching up to 2 1/2 feet in length and
weighing in at between 175 and 300 pounds as adults.
They swim far from their birthplaces, but upon reaching adulthood the
females return to the beaches on which they were born to dig their
nests. Nesting season on the Carolina coast is from May 1 through Aug.
The turtles use their rear flippers to dig egg chambers where they lay
from 100 to 180 ping-pong ball sized eggs, covering them up afterwards
returning to the sea. After approximately 60 days, the eggs, if
undisturbed, hatch out and the nestlings scurry to the sea.
Sea turtle populations have been declining in recent years.
Predation and natural weather events such as last winter’s unusually
cold temperatures already take their toll, while such human-related
impacts as water pollution, boat accidents, getting caught in fishing
nets, and loss of nesting habitat from beach activity and development
put them at great risk.
Raising their status on the Endangered Species List from threatened to
endangered is meant to be a way to combat these harmful impacts.
The decision to re-examine loggerhead species began with a five-year
study that ended in August of 2007. The services received petitions in
2007 from the Center for Biological Diversity and from Turtle Island
Restoration Network requesting the new designations, and a formal
status review was conducted in August of 2009. The report, filed by a
Loggerhead Biological Review Team, was reviewed by nine scientists who
were experts in the field and was described as “outstanding synthesis
of the best available scientific information.”
Loggerheads and other sea turtles are already protected on the beaches
of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore under current and proposed Park
Service resource regulations.
However, many Outer Banks fishermen are concerned that should the
loggerheads that frequent these waters be classified as endangered
instead of threatened, their jobs will be imperiled.
Commercial fishermen are already struggling with a lawsuit filed
against the state of North Carolina that has led the state’s Marine
Fisheries Division to shorten the fishing season for flounder and
reduce mesh size of the gill nets. Further restrictions could bring
about an end to North Carolina’s gill netting fishery entirely.
The recommendation for reclassifying Northwest Atlantic Ocean
loggerheads as endangered was based, in part, on declining nest
sightings in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.
Turtle expert Matthew Godfrey, who is with the North Carolina Wildlife
Resources Commission, said that “based on the data we have, loggerhead
nesting does not appear to be declining in North Carolina.”
In fact, a record number of turtles have nested on the beaches of the
Cape Hatteras National Seashore for the past two years.
That would not necessarily exclude North Carolina from new rules and
Alan Sutton, owner of Tradewinds Bait and Tackle on Ocracoke Island,
said that “one of the reasons I wanted to move to Ocracoke was because
of the wildlife, but now every time I hear the word it means more
rules, closures, and loss of income. I’ve gotten so I don’t
want to hear about turtles or other wildlife.”
Ernie Foster, operator of North Carolina’s oldest charter fishing
fleet, said when asked about the proposed reclassification, “I groan.
It is a tragedy. As someone who has a long-term interest in
environment and environmental issues (as a former biology teacher), I
find it very distressing. I see it as a way to use science to
further certain people’s personal agendas, many of which are purely
personal, and control other people.”
Ellen Gaskill, wife and mother of Ocracoke commercial fishermen James
Barrie and Morty Gaskill, has read the entire 230- page Loggerhead Sea
Turtle 2009 Status Report.
She says that the number of impacts on sea turtles listed in the report
is enormous and includes, among other things, roads, hotels, houses,
jetties, breakwaters, non-native vegetation, beach umbrellas, and
walking on the beach. She believes that “they (the implementers of the
Endangered Species Act) need to consider all these impacts and balance
them. We would ask that other players (besides fishermen) in the game
step up to the plate and change the way they operate in our coastal
Fisherman Gene Ballance says that he sees more loggerheads these days
when he is out in his boat, perhaps because of warmer water
temperatures in recent summer seasons. He emphasizes that he is
concerned about loggerhead sea turtles, but wonders how scientists
determine what is causing population declines or increases, and “if you
help it one place, how do you know it will help it somewhere else?” He
calls the Endangered Species Act “a good idea but a ridiculous law,”
because “it puts it all on people who are trying to survive.”
If the Northwest Atlantic Ocean loggerhead sea turtles are indeed
endangered, as the report says, then it is appropriate to
them as such and take appropriate measures to ensure their
survival. It is also important, however, to look at all the
impacts and to make sure that one group of people does not bear a
disproportionate share of the burden for ensuring
The information the services are seeking from public comments
includes historical and current population trends and distribution of
loggerheads, migratory behavior, current or planned activities that may
adversely impact them, and ongoing efforts to protect them.
The 90-day public comment period ends on June 14, 2010. Submissions
which state support or opposition without supporting information will
be noted but will not be considered in making the determination. More
information can be found online at http://www.regulations.gov.
Those wishing to comment can do so online or by faxing comments to
301-713-0376 or 904-731-3045. Comments can also be mailed to
NMFS Attn: Loggerhead Proposed Listing Rule, Office of
Resources, NMFS 1315 East-West Highway, Room 13657, Silver Spring MD
20910 or USFWS National Sea Turtle Coordinator, USFWS, 7915 Baymeadows
Way, Suite 200, Jacksonville FL 32256.