BRUNSWICK — It’s been a record nesting season for Georgia’s loggerhead sea turtles, which last week reached a milestone in efforts to help the threatened species recover.
With 2,810 nests on Georgia barrier islands, the turtles edged past a key goal while also setting a record high since comprehensive nesting counts began in 1989.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries plan for goals for the region including Georgia and the Carolinas is a 2 percent annual nesting increase for a 50-year period. Before this season, Georgia’s 3 percent annual increase rate had the state on pace to hit its goal of 2,800 nests in 2020.
“We’ve had a number of increasing nesting years in a row, but this is kind of a big year for us,” Mark Dodd, coordinator for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Sea Turtle Program, said in a phone interview. “It’s been a long history of conservation in Georgia that culminated in this 2,800 nests number, so it’s pretty exciting for us.”
Georgia’s main nesting sea turtle, loggerheads weigh as much as 400 pounds. Female turtles crawl onto beaches from late spring into August to lay eggs in nests dug on the dry-sand beach, DNR officials say. Hatchlings begin emerging this month, crawling to the surf to begin their lives at sea.
Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, noted that an “astounding” amount of sustained effort on the part of a number of people and organizations enabled the sea turtle nestings to rebound. Since the comprehensive surveys began, the low for a year has been 358 in 2004. This year’s number, which could touch 3,000 before the season ends, broke the previous record of 2,335 set last year. The count hasn’t dropped below 2014’s 1,200 since 2009.
“This is just a real cool milestone,” Dodd said. “We’ve got over 50 years of conservation (in the program), and we’ve got a huge number of partners. The DNR’s been coordinating things for about 30 years and we’ve put a lot of effort into it, but we rely on this whole list of partners. It’s just a tremendous amount of effort by people and organizations involved.”
Key partners noted by DNR officials include the Caretta Foundation, the Caretta Research Project, commercial shrimp trawl fishery, Cumberland Island National Seashore, the Georgia Ports Authority, Georgia Southern University, Gray’s Reef Marine Sanctuary, Jekyll Island Authority/Georgia Sea Turtle Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, St. Catherines Island Foundation, St. Simons Island Sea Turtle Project, Sea Island Company, The Environmental Resource Network, The Lodge at Little St. Simons Island, Tybee Island Marine Science Center, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Savannah Coastal Refuges, the U.S. Navy, and the University of Georgia and Marine Extension Service. Many are part of the DNR-coordinated Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative.
In fact, it was a UGA professor, Jim Richardson, who started working with Georgia loggerheads in 1964 on Cumberland Island, which Dodd said was “one of the first projects in the country.”
“What astounds me — and I’ve been doing this for 18 years — is all the effort that went into this prior to me getting here and then during the course of my tenure,” he said. “It’s just been all the groups making accommodations to try to help recover our sea turtle nesting population. They’re kind of an iconic species. It’s just really amazing, all the effort that went into it.”
Asked why the recovery of the loggerhead turtle population was important, Dodd said it is an “indicator” species, much like the bald eagle, that signals a problem that could get big enough to affect the ecosystem.
“Honestly, we could probably get by on the planet without loggerheads as a species,” he said. “They’re not considered a species that’s critical to maintain the ecosystem, but loggerheads are considered to be an indicator species. Very similar to the bald eagle, for instance. Their decline in numbers pointed to an environmental problem that could have affected the entire ecosystem and, ultimately, humans.”
In the case of bald eagles, which also are recovering in Georgia, the decline showed problems including improper pesticide use. The decline in loggerheads, meanwhile, showed a problem with the nesting area and the over-harvest of fish and food resources.
“They were telling us something, which was we were having an impact on our ecosystem,” Dodd said.
Likewise, the rebounds of species like the sea turtles and eagles is an indication that things are heading in a better direction.
But even hitting the nesting goal doesn’t mean the loggerheads will soon be off the threatened species list. The other two states in Georgia’s recovery unit still have some ground to make up. South Carolina has about 6,000 nestings and needs 9,200 to reach its goal set by NOAA, while North Carolina is about halfway to its 2,000-nest goal.
“It’s important to note that while we’re the first to meet our recovery goal, all the other states are showing increasing trends,” Dodd said. “Just like with the bald eagle, it’s a range-wide increase and I would expect some of these other states to reach their goals in the next five or six years.”
There are other criteria that will have to be met for the species to get delisted. Officials also have to monitor survival of the species, which has a long lifespan.
“Strandings (dead turtles that wash up on the beach) can’t increase at a level that’s higher than the increase in nestings,” Dodd said. “We have to monitor what’s the cause of death of those animals.” About 28 percent of the sea turtles found dead or hurt in Georgia in 2015 suffered injuries consistent with being hit by a boat.
“Also, we don’t just look at the reproductive stage of the population,” he said. “Because they’re so long-lived, they’re not sexually mature until they’re 30 or 35 years old. You really want to make sure there’s enough juveniles out there. There has to be a network of sites where they’re monitoring turtle abundance in the water and making sure that juvenile recruitment is sufficient and increasing. So, there’s a whole number of things that have to occur before we might consider a change in the status of loggerheads.”
A big part of the job is protecting the turtles, especially from predators. Dodd said feral hogs and raccoons dig up the eggs and eat them, and that coyotes have also come to the barrier islands.
“We have problems with predators on the beach,” he said. “We spend a lot of time protecting nests and relocating nests that are going to be inundated with high-tide events. There’s a lot of nest protection that goes on.”
The DNR says about 2 million people a year engage in wildlife-watching activities. People who engage in turtle-watching also need to follow certain rules, such as restrictions on the use of lighting, proper disposal of trash — especially plastic bags and plastic foam — and keeping their distance from the hatchlings.
“We do want to provide opportunities for the public to interact with sea turtles, and they can do that responsibly if they follow a few simple guidelines,” Dodd said.
After another week of nesting, it should slow down some, but the work keeps going to September.
“Everyone’s going to stop and celebrate for a little bit, then get back to digging in the sand,” Dodd said.
A key fundraiser for the loggerhead and similar projects comes from the sales of DNR wildlife auto license plates. A wildlife plate costs $25 more than a standard one, with up to $20 of the fee going to help restore species such as loggerheads.