Meet the Loggerhead (Caretta caretta). While there are populations of Loggerhead turtles around the world, the North Atlantic Loggerheads are genetically distinct from other populations. They are an important part of the marine ecosystem along the coasts of the southeastern United States, yet many marine scientists believe that they are on the brink of extinction.
In the past, Loggerheads were actively hunted for their meat, and their eggs were gathered as food. Today the species is protected internationally, although major threats to their survival remain. Loggerheads are most at risk from commercial fishing activities, and from degradation of their nesting grounds.
Loggerhead sea turtles become entangled in gill nets, and get caught in trawls and scallop dredges. Like all sea turtles, Loggerheads are air breathers, so they must surface from time to time in order to breathe. Entanglement in fishing gear prevents them from surfacing, so they drown. Turtles that do not drown outright often are injured in the process of struggling to escape fishing gear.
Fisheries that employ long-lines -- gear that consists of hundreds of baited hooks on a single line to catch fish -- also inadvertently catch Loggerheads. Long-line fishing is efficient, and is probably less ecologically damaging than trawling or dredging (in terms of 'by-catch'). Nevertheless, no one has yet discovered a method to eliminate the danger of long-lining to the sea turtles who are attracted to the bait, and who end up swallowing large steel fishing hooks along with that bait.
In the United States, there are Loggerhead nesting beaches along the Atlantic coast, particularly in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Loggerheads also nest on beaches of States bordering the Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to Texas. Sadly, the number of nests on these beaches is declining, and in the case of Florida, the number of Loggerhead nests has declined by about 50% over the past decade -- a startling figure!
An explosion of beachfront development is partly to blame. Some coastal areas are simply being eliminated as nesting grounds as housing and commercial activities encroach on them. Other nesting areas are being damaged by pollution, and disturbed by human and motor vehicle traffic. Turtles swimming in populated areas also are more at risk from collisions with boats.
Today two conservation organizations, Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity, have petitioned the Federal government of the United States to strengthen protection for North Atlantic Loggerhead turtles. They are urging the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency responsible for protecting Loggerheads in ocean waters, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for protecting turtles on land, to change the designation of these Loggerheads from "threatened" to "endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
In addition to the threats from commercial fishing and degradation of nesting areas mentioned above, these conservationists also believe that climate change is now impacting the survival of Loggerheads. As summarized in a press release issued by Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity:
Many marine biologists fear climate change will stress loggerhead sea turtle populations even further. Climate change can cause severe storms, erosion and sea level rise, all of which can affect sea turtle nesting on beaches. Rising temperatures caused by climate change may alter the timing or location of nesting or may increase the number of female turtles, because the sex of the hatchlings is temperature dependent. Climate change may also affect sea turtles by altering ocean currents and migration routes. Finally, ocean acidification caused by rising carbon dioxide levels breaks down the shells of preferred turtle prey, such as mollusks and crustaceans, and could alter turtles' food supply.We decided to tell our readers about Loggerhead sea turtles today in support of this effort by Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity to recruit greater protection for these magnificent animals. For more information, please visit the Sea Turtle pages on the Oceana website.
We have crossed paths with very few Loggerheads over the years. As a result, we had no photos of Loggerheads in our personal collection to use for this article. All of the photos accompanying today's post came from external sources. The nice Loggerhead portrait near the top of the page came from Wikimedia Commons, and the photos of the Loggerhead with the fishing hook in its mouth were supplied by Oceana. We thank the donors of these photos for allowing us to publish them on The Right Blue.
Some of the factual information in this article was derived from Oceana's report, Climate Change and Commerical Fishing: A One-Two Punch for Sea Turtles (12 page 'pdf' file), and the Loggerhead Sea Turtle 5-year Review, published in August of 2007 by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (67 page 'pdf' file)