Loggerhead sea turtles have crawled their way to a conservation milestone in Georgia.
As of July 19, the hard-shell giants with log-sized heads had laid more than 2,810 nests on the state’s barrier island beaches this nesting season, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. A key recovery goal for loggerheads, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, is 2,800 nests annually in Georgia.
And while sea turtle nesting winds down in mid-July, it’s far from over.
DNR Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Mark Dodd expects 3,000-plus nests, about a third more than last year’s 2,335 nests, the previous high since comprehensive surveys began on Georgia beaches in 1989.
“When you think about the fact that for many years we averaged about 1,000 nests and this year we may be beyond 3,000 … it suggests an exponential increase,” said Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.
Loggerheads are Georgia’s main nesting sea turtle. Weighing as much as 400 pounds, females crawl onto beaches from late spring into August to lay eggs in nests dug on the dry-sand beach. Hatchlings begin emerging in July, scrambling for the surf to begin their lives at sea.
Sea turtles face threats varying from habitat loss to nest predation, boat strikes and incidental catch in commercial fishing. All have reduced loggerhead numbers, leading to legal protections and large-scale conservation efforts – protections and efforts that apparently are paying off.
While loggerhead nesting can vary widely year to year, statistical analysis shows an annual increase of about 3 percent in Georgia, not counting 2016. Nesting in Florida and the Carolinas is also trending upward. One of the recovery goals set in a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries plan for the unit including Georgia and the Carolinas is a 2 percent annual nesting increase for 50 years.
That equates to 2,800 nests a year in Georgia, a mark the state had been on track to hit in about 2020.
Dodd cautioned, however, that the recovery of loggerheads “still has a long way to go.” He stressed the need for continued conservation, and emphasized the partnerships – from grassroots groups to government agencies – forged to monitor nesting, restore habitats and protect sea turtles.
He also said the health of these iconic turtles effects coastal environments and economies. That impact is heightened in a state where more than 2 million residents take part in wildlife-watching activities.
“Our goal is to recover loggerheads in the state and make sure the population is stable,” Dodd said. At 2,800 nests and counting, “we’re reaching one of the milestones set to achieve that.”
DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section works to conserve sea turtles and other rare wildlife not legally fished for or hunted, as well as rare plants and natural habitats. The agency does this largely through public support from fundraisers, grants and contributions.
A key fundraiser is the sale and renewals of eagle and hummingbird license plates. DNR wildlife plates cost only $25 more than a standard plate to buy or renew, and up to $20 of that fee goes to help restore species such as loggerhead sea turtles. Details at www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/support.
Sea Turtle Partners
Key Georgia DNR partners involved in sea turtle conservation and recovery. Many are part of the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative, a DNR-coordinated network of about 200 volunteers, researchers and agency employees who patrol beaches daily during nesting season to mark, monitor and protect nests.
- Caretta Foundation: nesting surveys and stranding response on Little Cumberland Island.
- Caretta Research Project: nesting surveys on Wassaw Island and stranding response.
- Commercial shrimp trawl fishery: use of TEDs has significantly reduced sea turtle mortality.
- Cumberland Island National Seashore: nesting surveys and stranding response.
- Georgia Ports Authority: modifications to port facility lighting to minimize effects on sea turtles, and support for Caretta Research Project.
- Georgia Southern University: nesting surveys and research.
- Gray’s Reef Marine Sanctuary: assistance with stranding response and education.
- Jekyll Island Authority/Georgia Sea Turtle Center: nesting surveys and stranding response.
- National Marine Fisheries Service: provides funds for stranding response, law enforcement for turtle excluder device (TED) compliance (in concert with the DNR Law Enforcement Division) and technical support for TED compliance.
- St. Catherines Island Foundation: nesting surveys and stranding response.
- Sea Island Company: nesting surveys and stranding response.
- The Environmental Resource Network (TERN): DNR Nongame Conservation Section friends group raises money for sea turtle conservation activities.
- The Lodge at Little St. Simons Island: nesting surveys and stranding response.
- Tybee Island Marine Science Center: nesting surveys on Tybee.
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Savannah and Jacksonville districts): channel dredging in winter to avoid sea turtle mortality.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Savannah Coastal Refuges: nesting surveys on Blackbeard Island and logistical support for Caretta Research Project on Wassaw Island.
- U.S. Navy: channel dredging in winter to avoid sea turtle mortality.
- University of Georgia and Marine Extension Service: research and education.
What You Can Do
All marine turtles in Georgia are protected by state and federal law. To help conserve these species:
- Minimize beachfront lighting during sea turtle nesting season. Turn off, shield or redirect lights.
- When walking the beach at night, don’t use flashlights and flash photography. They can deter turtles from coming ashore or disturb nesting turtles. .
- If you encounter a sea turtle on the beach, observe at a distance.
- Don’t disturb turtle tracks. Researchers use them to identify species and mark nests for protection.
- Do not touch or disturb nests or hatchlings.
- Properly dispose of your garbage. Turtles may mistake plastic bags, Styrofoam and trash floating in the water as food.
- Remove recreational equipment such as lounge chairs and umbrellas from the beach at night. They can deter nesting attempts and interfere with the seaward journey of hatchlings.
- Protect beach vegetation that stabilizes sand and the natural coastline.
- When boating, stay alert and avoid turtles. About 28 percent of the sea turtles found dead or hurt in Georgia in 2015 suffered injuries consistent with being hit by a boat. Boaters who hit a sea turtle are urged to stand-by and contact DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363). Also report any dead or injured sea turtles seen at 800-272-8363. (If the turtle is tagged, include the tag color and number in the report if possible.)
Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia DNR
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 first recorded emergence this year happened the night of July 5 on St. Catherines Island.) 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.
Loggerhead Nesting in Georgia
Annual loggerhead 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 – 2,335
More on the Net
- Georgia nesting updates by beach – www.seaturtle.org/nestdb/?view=3
- Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative – www.georgiawildlife.com/SeaTurtleCooperative
- Loggerhead profile – www.georgiawildlife.com/rare_species_profiles (click “Reptiles”)
- Georgia DNR Nongame Conservation Section – www.georgiawildlife.com/wildlife