Carolina’s loggerhead sea turtles will not be listed as endangered
BY CATHERINE KOZAK
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
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
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
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
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
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,”
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
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.”