What a difference a decade of conservation can make.
In 2004, the number of loggerhead sea turtle nests on Georgia’s barrier island beaches plunged to 358, the fewest since comprehensive surveys began in the state in 1989.
This summer, the season count has reached 2,292 nests, the most since 1989 and the latest in a string of strong nesting seasons that point toward a recovery for Georgia’s primary nesting marine turtle.
Mark Dodd, coordinator of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources sea turtle program, has undergone a similar sea-change in his outlook for loggerheads, a species federally listed as threatened.
“If you had asked me less than 10 years ago, I would’ve said there’s a possibility we’ll lose loggerhead nesting in Georgia,” said Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.
Although nesting is practically over for the summer – the latest was laid Monday on Little Cumberland Island – the final count could top 2,330 nests because genetic analysis will likely confirm that loggerheads made most of the 30 nests marked as "unknown species.” Also as hatchings emerge,
Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative members discover some nests that weren’t found when they were made. The cooperative is a network of volunteers, researchers and agency employees who patrol beaches daily during the nesting season, protecting and managing nests.
Loggerhead nesting is highly variable. The total dipped to 1,201 last summer. But the previous four years set consecutive records, culminating in 2,289 nests in 2013.
And while this year's final count will mark a relatively small increase over 2013, the long-term trend that shows nesting increasing at about 3 percent a year is "an exceptionally good rate ... for a long-lived species with a low maximum-population growth rate," Dodd wrote Sea Turtle Cooperative members.
That increasing trend is statistically significant for loggerheads, according to DNR analysis.
The health of this iconic species effects coastal environments and economies, an impact heightened in a state where more than 30 percent of residents 16 and older take part in wildlife-watching activities.
Dodd credits the recovery to a wide range of conservation measures, from Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative members using wire screen to shield nests from predators to commercial fishery regulations reducing sea turtle deaths along Georgia’s coast and far into the Atlantic Ocean.
Teasing out how effective each has been in turning around loggerhead nesting is difficult. But, speaking of work done by the 200-plus Sea Turtle Cooperative members, Dodd said, “We feel pretty confident that our management efforts are having a significant impact.”
Nest totals still fall shy of federal recovery benchmarks: a 2 percent annual increase for 50 years resulting in a statewide total of 2,800 nests a year. Dodd also cautioned that while Georgia has made progress toward those goals, it’s critical to keep in place measures that helped conserve the species.
With nesting coming to a close, hatching is in full swing. About 64 percent of sea turtle hatchlings on Georgia beaches have emerged, digging out of their sand nests and heading toward the surf.
The hatching success rate – hovering at about 68 percent – has been boosted by a lack of storm surges and extreme high tides. According to Dodd, two major factors affect sea turtle hatching success rates: predation and tropical storms, including the storm-spawned tidal surges that inundate nests.
Follow nesting and hatching at http://seaturtle.org (click “Sea Turtle Nesting” and “Georgia”).
You Can Help
Georgians can help conserve loggerhead sea turtles and other nongame wildlife, native plants and natural habitats through buying a flying eagle or hummingbird wildlife license plate and annually renewing those and the older eagle design tags.
DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, part of the agency’s Wildlife Resources Division, depends primarily on fundraising, grants and direct contributions for its mission to conserve wildlife not hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as rare plants and habitats.
Nongame wildlife plates cost only $25 more than a standard plate to buy or renew, and most of the fee goes to conserve wildlife. Tags are available at county offices, by checking the wildlife license plate box on mail-in registrations and through online renewals (mvd.dor.ga.gov/tags).
For more, visit www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/support. Or, call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).
Loggerhead Nesting in Georgia
Annual nest totals since comprehensive surveys began in 1989.
1989 – 675
1990 – 1,031
1991 – 1,101
1992 – 1,048
1993 – 470
1994 – 1,360
1995 – 1,022
1996 – 1,096
1997 – 789
1998 – 1,055
1999 – 1,406
2000 – 1,060
2001 – 852
2002 – 1,028
2003 – 1,504
2004 – 358
2005 – 1,187
2006 – 1,389
2007 – 689
2008 – 1,649
2009 – 997
2010 – 1,761
2011 – 1,992
2012 – 2,241
2013 – 2,289
2014 – 1,201
2015 – 2,292 (as of Sept. 2)
Loggerheads at a Glance
- Caretta caretta: Most common sea turtle on Georgia’s coast; found off coast year-round. Also one of the world’s largest turtles, topping 350 pounds and sporting a carapace up to 44 inches long. How long loggerheads live is not known.
- About that name: Loggerhead refers to the species’ large head.
- Range: The Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea. Nests in the U.S. from Virginia to Texas.
- Nesting: Females reach sexual maturity at 30-35 years. From May through September, they crawl ashore at night, dig a hole in the face of dunes along barrier island beaches, and deposit and cover eggs.
- Pilgrimage: Eggs hatch in 55-65 days. The young scramble for the water, beginning a journey that can take them from sargassum weed off Georgia’s shores to a current-fed loop that circles to the Azores and the eastern Atlantic Ocean, south to west Africa and back to the western Atlantic.
- Eats: Fish eggs and small invertebrates when small. As adults, they eat mainly crabs and mollusks, but also forage items like jellyfish and dead fish.
- Status: Federally listed as threatened since 1978. Georgia DNR reclassified loggerheads in the state from threatened to endangered in 2006.
- Threats: Primarily mortality associated with commercial fishing activities, but also nest predation by raccoons and feral hogs, poaching, loss of habitat, boat strikes, and even ingestion of plastic litter mistaken as food.