It’s official: Loggerhead sea turtle nesting is on the rise in Georgia.
Nest counts for these turtles federally listed as threatened fluctuate from summer to summer. But new analysis by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources shows that a string of higher totals in recent years is not an anomaly, according to Mark Dodd, DNR Sea Turtle Program Coordinator.
“For the first time since we started comprehensive nest surveys in 1989 … we have a statistically significant increasing trend in nesting,” Dodd said.
The wildlife biologist with DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section relayed the good news during a Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative meeting in Brunswick Wednesday. Coordinated by DNR, the cooperative is made up of volunteers, researchers and agency employees who patrol barrier island beaches daily during the sea turtle nesting season, conducting nest protection and management.
“This,” said Dodd, “is what we’ve been waiting for for 20 years.”
Loggerheads laid at least 2,218 nests in Georgia this summer. That’s the most documented during the 24 years the state’s coastline has been closely surveyed for sea turtle nesting. The new high capped three consecutive summers of record totals, including 1,760 nests in 2010 and 1,992 in 2011.
Yet it took statistical analysis to assure wildlife biologists that the turnaround is for real.
Dodd credits a wide-range of conservation measures, from Sea Turtle Cooperative members using wire screen to shield nests from predators to commercial fishery regulations reducing sea turtle deaths off Georgia’s coast and far into the Atlantic Ocean.
The health of such an iconic species effects coastal environments and economies. And in a state where more than 30 percent of residents 16 and older take part in wildlife-watching activities, the Sea Turtle Cooperative reflects that interest and diversity.
Partners include Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia Sea Turtle Center, Little Cumberland Island Homeowners Association, St. Simons Island Sea Turtle Project, Sea Island Co., The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (including Blackbeard and Wassaw islands), the St. Catherines Island Foundation, Caretta Research Project and Tybee Island Marine Science Center.
Loggerhead sea turtles still face challenges. According to the federal recovery plan, the species may be considered recovered in Georgia if the population shows a 2 percent annual increase for 50 years resulting in a statewide total of 2,800 nests annually.
But after this summer, recovery looks much more possible.
Dodd mentioned sea turtle work that began more than 40 years ago on some Georgia beaches.
“We have been doing this a long time. Even though we recognize loggerheads are a long-lived species, at some point you wonder … when is it really going to pay off? I think we’re starting to see that.”
How You Can Help
Georgians can help conserve loggerhead sea turtles and other nongame wildlife, native plants and natural habitats through buying a wildlife license plate featuring a bald eagle or a ruby-throated hummingbird. They can also contribute to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund directly or through the state income tax checkoff.
Contributions are vital to the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section. Part of the DNR Wildlife Resources Division, the Nongame Conservation Section receives no state general funds for its mission to help conserve wildlife not hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as rare plants and habitats.
License plates are available for an extra $35 specialty tag fee at county tag offices, by checking the wildlife license plate box on mail-in registrations and through online renewals (http://mvd.dor.ga.gov/tags). Specialty plates include an annual renewal fee.
For the Give Wildlife a Chance checkoff, fill in any amount more than $1 on line 26 of the state’s long tax form (Form 500) or line 10 of the short form (Form 500-EZ). Contributions can be deducted from refunds or added to payments.
For more on how to help wildlife, go to www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/support. Or, call Nongame Conservation Section offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218). State income tax forms are available online at https://etax.dor.ga.gov.
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 – 2,218
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 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 habitat loss, but also nest predation by raccoons and feral hogs, poaching, entanglement in shrimp and fishing nets, boat strikes, and even ingestion of plastic litter mistaken as food.
- Like mother, like … A University of Georgia researcher working with DNR has identified more than 1,750 loggerhead females nesting on Georgia beaches. Of those, there at least 30 mother/daughter pairs – mothers at least 60 years old nesting alongside their 30-year-old daughters.