Extinction Looms for Loggerhead Sea Turtles, New Rule Offers Hope

WASHINGTON, DC, March 10, 2010 (ENS) – Loggerhead sea turtles have been classed as threatened on the U.S. Endangered Species List for more than 30 years, but today two federal government agencies proposed to list several populations of the migratory turtles as endangered.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a proposed rule that would designate nine distinct population segments of loggerheads around the world and list seven as endangered and two as threatened.

The rule would change the status of U.S. North Pacific and Northwest Atlantic loggerhead sea turtles from threatened to endangered. A 2009 status review of loggerhead sea turtles worldwide by the National Marine Fisheries Service found both populations “currently at risk of extinction.”

The proposed rule is a response to two petitions submitted in 2007 by the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network that sought stronger protections for North Pacific and Northwest Atlantic loggerheads and their key habitat areas on land and in the water.

“The proposed rule marks a turning point in our ability to protect loggerhead sea turtles,” said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “By recognizing and preventing impacts to regional populations and their habitats, we’ll have a much better chance of putting these magnificent, prehistoric animals on a path to recovery instead of extinction.”

The change in listing status means the populations are in danger of extinction and will trigger a legal requirement for proposed critical habitat to improve protections for key nesting beaches and migratory and feeding habitat in the ocean.

Loggerhead sea turtle escapes from a fishing net through a turtle excluder device. (Photo courtesy NOAA)

“Loggerhead sea turtles will struggle to survive if we don’t protect the areas where they nest, swim, and eat,” said Dave Allison, senior campaign director at Oceana. “It’s time for the U.S. government to stop delaying and actually establish protections that will once and for all allow this endangered species to recover.”

The loggerhead occurs throughout the temperate and tropical regions of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. The most recent reviews show that only two loggerhead nesting aggregations have more than 10,000 females nesting per year – Peninsular Florida and Masirah Island, Oman.

While Northwest Atlantic loggerheads nest on beaches from North Carolina to Texas, Florida accounts for over 90 percent of loggerhead nesting in the United States. But loggerhead nesting on Florida beaches has declined by nearly half over the past decade.

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation, the world’s oldest sea turtle research and protection group, said that while it is important to conserve all populations of loggerheads, saving Northwest Atlantic loggerheads is “critical” to the global survival of this species because it is the world’s second largest remaining assemblage of these imperiled turtles.

“This proposal is long overdue,” said David Godfrey, CCC’s executive director.

Loggerheads face numerous threats onshore where they nest and at sea, but accidental capture, injury and death in commercial fisheries is perhaps the greatest peril to their survival today.

“Overwhelming evidence points to accidental capture in fishing lines, hooks, nets and dredges as the main culprit in these declines,” says Godfrey. “International fleets capture, injure and kill tens of thousands of loggerheads on the high seas every year. In U.S. waters, National Marine Fisheries Service has allowed our fisheries to kill thousands of large and small loggerheads rather than adequately regulate fishing.”

“Despite the proposed new endangered status for this species, loggerheads can still be saved if United States efforts are appropriately focused,” Godfrey said. “The National Marine Fisheries Service must immediately reduce loggerhead capture in fisheries.”

Godfrey says that in January, concern about the species was elevated when loggerheads were “ominously absent” among sea turtles rescued from record cold waters in Florida. Over 4,000 juvenile sea turtles were affected by prolonged freezing temperatures.

“Unlike previous cold-stun events, when a near even mix of green turtles and loggerheads were impacted, almost all of the turtles found this year were green turtles,” Godfrey said. “The absence of loggerheads among the massive number of turtles rescued raises concerns that juvenile loggerheads, as well as nesting adults, are in decline.”

Loggerheads have declined by at least 80 percent in the North Pacific and could become functionally or ecologically extinct by the mid-21st century if additional protections are not put into place, conservationists warn.

In the North Pacific, loggerhead nesting has been found only in Japan. In the South Pacific, loggerhead nesting sites have been documented in eastern Australia and New Caledonia, and in smaller sites on Vanuatu and Tokelau.

“Loggerheads will disappear from the Pacific without greater protections from capture in fisheries,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “Action is more urgent than ever with the recent expansion of the Hawaiian swordfish fleet and the tripling of loggerhead capture.”

Click here to view the 240 page proposed rule. Public comment on the proposed rule is invited through June 14, 2010. Requests for public hearings must be received by June 1, 2010.

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