Loggerhead sea turtles nesting in record numbers in Southeast

July 16, 2019, 9:19 a.m.

Massive loggerhead sea turtles lumber ashore each summer to dig nests in the sand along the Atlantic Coast. Although they're found worldwide mostly in subtropical and temperate ocean waters, they're the most abundant sea turtle species found in U.S. coastal waters of the Atlantic, from North Carolina through southwest Florida, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

All loggerhead turtle populations are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act and classified as vulnerable (with their numbers decreasing) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

But there's some good news this summer. There's an egg-laying boom along the coast in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, reports The Associated Press. Wildlife researchers credit the comeback to federal protections that were put in place more than 30 years ago.

As MNN's Russell McLendon points out, the government protects endangered sea turtles in several ways:

"Coastal wildlife refuges provide key nesting habitat, for example, since they're largely free of sea walls, beach lights and other types of development that can deter or disorient turtles. Refuge workers also cage eggs against predators like raccoons and opossums, and relocate nests at risk of washing away. And since the Endangered Species Act forbids killing or disturbing endangered turtles, they're also relatively safe from human hunters."

'We're finally seeing it pay off'

adult loggerhead sea turtle, Caretta caretta Protections put in place 30 years ago appear to be helping loggerheads. (Photo: Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock)

Biologist Mark Dodd, who heads Georgia's sea turtle recovery program, attributes the nesting rebound to that state monitoring and protecting nests and a mandate requiring shrimp boats to equip their nets with escape hatches.

So far in 2019, more than 3,500 loggerhead nests have been recorded on beaches in Georgia — more than the state's 2016 record of 3,289, according to the AP. Dodd says he expects the count to reach 4,000 by the end of August.

It takes about 30 years or so for loggerheads to reach maturity, so researchers believe those turtles who were protected decades ago are now coming back to nest.

"They’ve been able to survive to maturity and reproduce and come back to lay eggs," Michelle Pate, who leads the sea turtle program for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, told the AP. "It's been a long haul, but I think we're finally seeing it pay off."