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Declining turtle population

  • Turtle of the Bay
    Turtle of the Bay  Loggerhead turtles are the species of sea turtle most often found in the Chesapeake Bay.  Photo © 2005 Dennis Lieberson
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East Coast loggerheads proposed for endangered species list

Two federal agencies have proposed to list the East Coast population of the loggerhead sea turtle as an endangered species. Loggerheads are the most common sea turtles in the Chesapeake Bay.

The proposal, filed jointly by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is informed by research conducted by VIMS emeritus professor Jack Musick and the six other members of the joint NMFS/USFWS Loggerhead Recovery Team. Musick terms the team's four-year effort "one of the most thorough endangered species studies ever done."

The entire worldwide population of loggerheads is currently listed as threatened, with federal protections in place in U.S. waters since 1978. The recent proposal would divide the worldwide population into nine geographic sub-populations, with seven of those proposed for an endangered listing (the other two would retain their threatened status).

These turtles nest mainly along the southeastern coast of the U.S.; juveniles then ride the Gulf Stream into the North Atlantic, where they spend 6-12 years before returning to U.S. coastal waters. These older juveniles migrate seasonally along the continental shelf; some enter the Chesapeake Bay each spring to feed on crabs, snails, fish and sea grasses.

The proposed endangered-species listing reflects clear evidence of population declines among northwest Atlantic loggerheads. Musick and other members of the Loggerhead Recovery Team report that nest numbers in Florida declined by 26 percent between 1989 and 2008. Data from the last decade shows an even steeper rate of decline, with 41 percent fewer nests now than in 1998.

Aerial surveys of loggerheads in the Chesapeake Bay-taken by Musick and his graduate students during the 1980s, in 1994, and again between 2001 and 2004-confirm the Florida findings. The surveys, part of VIMS' ongoing Sea Turtle Stranding Program, suggest that the Bay's loggerhead population has fallen by almost 70 percent during the last 30 years.

Musick notes that the recent decline in nesting females could have its origins in events that began 15-20 years ago, when today's nesting females first left their home beaches for open-ocean waters where a major long-line fishery operates for tuna, swordfish and blue sharks.

"Numerous countries are involved in this pelagic long-line fishery," says Musick, "with Spain having the largest fleet. Bycatch in this fishery is the single biggest threat facing these turtles."

Musick expects that an endangered-species listing would further strengthen these protections. Future protections would likely involve more stringent enforcement of current regulations, decreases in the number of incidental turtle captures allowed during fishing for other species, and seasonal limits on dredging operations along the U.S. Atlantic coastline.   i