September 19, 2011
Loggerhead Sea Turtle Listing Revised
US agencies issued a final ruling on Friday changing the listing of loggerhead sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) from a single threatened species to nine unique population segments, reports AFP.
Scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) believe the new ruling will help them focus conservation efforts on the specific needs of the distinct populations. NOAA and FWS share jurisdiction for loggerhead sea turtles listed under the ESA.
The decision was detailed in a 331-page document put together by both agencies. It came in response to legal petitions filed in 2007 by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Turtle Island Restoration Network and Oceana for additional protections for loggerheads.
In March, the agencies proposed listing seven unique populations as endangered. However, the final statuses of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean and Southeast Indo-Pacific Ocean segments were changed from endangered to threatened after further analysis and public comments and objections from the fishing industry, according to Jim Lecky, NOAA fisheries director of protected resources.
Under the new ruling, loggerhead sea turtles along the West Coast will be the only segment listed as endangered in the US. A proposal to list the Northwest Atlantic population as endangered was brought forth earlier this year, but was shot down due to a number of factors.
“The trend in nesting female [Northwest Atlantic Ocean] loggerhead sea turtles is relatively flat; their decline is not a precipitous one,” Sandy MacPherson, national sea turtle coordinator for the FWS, told LA Times in an interview.
However, “the failure to recognize that Northwest Atlantic loggerheads are endangered ignores the massive impacts of the BP oil spill and increased threats from shrimp-trawler fisheries on this imperiled population,” Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, told the LA Times.
Lecky feels the impacts from future oil drilling, fishing and other activities on loggerheads will be minor because “the animals were already listed worldwide as threatened.”
The Center for Biological Diversity estimates loggerhead populations along the Pacific coast dropped 80 percent over the last decade. And Atlantic populations had declined by almost 40 percent since 1998, the center estimates. Atlantic loggerheads have rebounded somewhat in recent years, however.
“While today´s designation gives new hope for North Pacific loggerheads, it leaves the fate of the species in the Atlantic at risk,” Whit Sheard, an attorney with Oceana, said in a statement.
Loggerhead nests in the US are found along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, from southern Virginia through Alabama. South Florida has the largest nesting beaches for loggerheads in the Northwest Atlantic. In the Pacific, loggerheads nest in Japan but spend much of their time along the coasts of Mexico and Southern California.
Loggerheads grow to about 3 feet in length and can weigh up to 250 pounds. Because they reach sexual maturity at about 35 years old, it may take decades before scientists can determine whether conservation measures are reflected in sea turtle mortality rates and increased chances of survival, said MacPherson.
“Loggerhead populations across the world need more protection to survive this century,” Kilduff told Louis Sahagun of the LA Times. “This listing is a wake-up call that a whole host of threats – from oil spills, channel dredging and commercial trawling to longline and gillnet fisheries – continue to kill off turtles faster than the animals can possibly hope to reproduce.”
Conservation groups were upset that the Obama administration did not propose ways to protect loggerhead habitat.
“The government has delayed proposing any critical habitat for loggerhead sea turtles, which is an important step in achieving improved protections for key nesting beaches and migratory and feeding areas in the ocean,” Oceana stated.
Oceana suggested that the Obama administration caved to Republican opposition.
“The government completely dismissed its own scientific conclusions,” Oceana marine wildlife manager Elizabeth Griffin Wilson told MSNBC.com. “Listing decisions are legally required to be based entirely on science. This is yet another example of the U.S. government folding because of political pressure.”
Still, loggerheads and other sea turtles have benefited from new fishing nets that allow them to escape entanglement. But these nets are not mandatory, which means thousands are still killed each year. In the US shrimp trawling industry alone, a recent study found that some 4,600 sea turtles get trapped and die in fishing nets each year.
“Both agencies agreed that loggerhead sea turtle conservation benefits from an approach that recognizes regionally varying threats,” said Cindy Dohner, FWS southeast regional director. “Today´s listing of separate distinct population segments will help us better assess, monitor, and address threats, and evaluate conservation successes, on a regional scale.”
Five distinct population segments of loggerhead sea turtles will retain their endangered status: Northeast Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, North Indian Ocean, North Pacific Ocean and South Pacific Ocean. The South Atlantic Ocean and Southwest Indian Ocean populations will remain as threatened.
Loggerheads are one of six sea turtle species found in the US. All are designated as threatened or endangered.
Image Caption: Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta). Credit: NOAA
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