September 22, 2011 Facebook TwitterMore...

North Carolina’s loggerhead sea turtles will not be listed as endangered


Loggerhead sea turtles that spend at least part of their lives off the coast of North Carolina have been maintained as threatened on the federal Endangered Species Act list, unlike their U.S. Pacific Coast counterparts which are now listed as endangered.

The final rule issued last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration changed the ESA listing for loggerheads from a single threatened species into nine distinct population segments, or DSAs. Of them, the Northwest  Atlantic population --- those found on North Carolina beaches --- and the Southeast Indo-Pacific population were not uplisted.  

The original proposal, responding to two 2007 petitions from the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, had requested that all loggerheads be reclassified as endangered.  The animals were first listed as threatened in 1978.

After a review team analyzed data and public comments, the agencies decided that the higher level of protection for the Northwest Atlantic turtles was unnecessary because the population, which includes the Southeast Atlantic and Gulf coasts, is relatively stable, and that measures to alleviate turtle bycatch in commercial fisheries appear effective.

The decision was lauded by U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-NC, who had opposed uplisting the Northwest turtles.

In an August letter to federal wildlife and fisheries service officials, Jones and U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-N.Y., said that the agency’s own data determined that there are “millions to tens of millions” of loggerheads in the Northwest segment, thanks in large part to measures like closures, gear modification, and reductions in pelagic longline, shrimp and scallop fishing..   

An uplisting to endangered status would be “problematic” to commercial fisheries, the letter said, and would “degrade” the higher designation under the ESA.

“All of us are for protecting sea turtles, and everyone is happy to see that turtle populations are improving,” Jones said in a prepared statement after last week’s announcement.

 “Fishermen have played a key role in that recovery, as they have been required to live under significant restrictions. The question was whether adding even more protection was necessary, and I’m glad the agency agreed that the science showed that it isn’t.”

But a turtle biologist with one of the petitioners said that serious management issues remain in the Northwest with shrimp trawlers and with critical habitat designation.

“It’s a real disappointment,” Chris Pincetich, a marine biologist with Turtle Island’s Sea Turtle Restoration Project, said about the Northwest ruling.  “It’s going to be a big setback for conservation efforts.”

Turtle excluder devices, known as TEDs, he said, must also include smaller shrimp trawlers that fish in shallower waters. And although the devices on the larger vessels can be 97 percent effective, he said, they only work if they’re used properly.

“The reality is they’re rarely installed the way they’re supposed to be,” Pincetich said.
Pincetich added that putting the required sea turtle critical habitat designation in place would provide another layer of protection from threats like coastal development and offshore oil drilling. He said his group is working with Fish and Wildlife to complete it “hopefully” in a year.

No accurate information exists to know what the numbers of sea turtles had been before stresses from fishing, pollution, litter, development, and habitat destruction threatened the large, long-living reptiles. But Pincetich said that sailors centuries ago complained how loggerheads turtles bumping against their wooden sailing ships would keep them awake all night.

“We are at a fraction, a minimal level, of their historic population,” he said.

Statewide, 929 loggerheads nested along the North Carolina coast in 2011, he said, with about 153 lost in Hurricane Irene.

On the Outer Banks, record numbers of loggerheads have nested on beaches between Nags Head and the Virginia state line this year, said Karen Clark, sea turtle biologist at the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education. Clark said that the warmer waters earlier in the year may have encouraged more nesting.

In Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the trend in recent years has been increasing numbers of nests, said Britta Muiznieks, a wildlife biologist for the seashore.
“Whether it’ll continue to do that,” she said, “ remains to be seen.”

Of the 147 total nests --- all loggerhead except for 10 green turtle --- 42 were completely washed out or had non-viable eggs after the hurricane. Some nests hatched out after the storm, Muiznieks said, but most were negatively impacted.  

All the active nests with hatchlings -- 25 total in the seashore -- were excavated before the storm to give them a chance to survive in the water, she said. But because eggs can’t be moved until they’re at least 35 days old, she said, and there are few safe places to put them, only some nests were moved.  

Even without the endangered listing, the Northwest Atlantic sea turtles are still protected by federal law and will get a similar level of protection, said Matthew Godfrey, a  sea turtle biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

But Godfrey cautioned that although the average numbers of sea turtles on the East and Gulf coasts may be increasing, populations can go up and down over time and at different levels at different areas of the coast.  Loggerheads can swim thousands of miles, and have been known to circumnavigate the entire Atlantic basin in their lifetime.

“You can’t just look at one beach. --- you have to look at the whole Atlantic population,” he said. “I think you’d have to look at long-term, large-scale data.”

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