Loggerhead Sea Turtles Make a Comeback in Georgia

Officials with  Georgia and South Carolina’s Departments of Natural Resources believe the loggerhead sea turtle population has increased, and they say part of the credit for that goes to the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension program.
According to Lindsey Parker, a marine resource specialist with the UGA Marine Extension program, the good news came first from shrimp fisherman who claimed that they have seen more sea turtles in the water since they were first required to use turtle excluder devices five years ago. These devices, developed by Sinkey Boone in cooperation with UGA Marine Extension, allow the sea turtles to escape from the nets instead of getting caught by giving them holes to swim through.

The fisherman told the regulators what they had seen and lobbied for research to be done that showed they were telling the truth since policy makers could not rely on only anecdotal evidence. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources was granted money to carry out this project and requested the UGA Marine Extension program to be the principal investigators.

Using UGA’s research vessel the Georgia Bulldog and the shrimp boat research vessels provided by South Carolina’s DNR, both teams threw their nets into the water and documented everything they caught along the Georgia coast. After three or four years of research, the researchers confirmed what the fishermen had been saying all along. There were more sea turtles in the water.

While the UGA Marine Extension and the South Carolina DNR were working in the ocean, Georgia’s DNR was working on shore. Mark Dodd with the Georgia DNR says the Georgia DNR coordinated a nest protection program in which people carried out a sort of census of sea turtle eggs on each of the barrier island beaches to determine if loggerhead sea turtle populations had truly risen.

Program members worked over the summer locating and marking all the sea turtle nests to get a population census and to protect the nests with screens so that the baby turtles were protected from predators and had a higher chance of reproductive success. The researchers would also take an egg from each nest to extract maternal DNA to identify the females laying the eggs to see how often the same individuals were reproducing.

In addition, the Georgia DNR headed a program which rescues stranded turtles and examines the bodies of dead sea turtles to determine what was killing them in the wild.

Mark Dodd uses all this research to support the policies he pushes forward for protecting the loggerhead sea turtles and to comment on federal policies that “might result in harm to sea turtle populations.” Furthermore, he pushes for programs that support their plan for recovering the sea turtle population also known as their recovery plan and programs to rebuild the sea turtles’ natural habitat.

The experts say 30 years ago, there was a decline in loggerhead turtle nesting up until the 1990’s. The first year of implementing turtle excluder devices was 1991. In the last five years, the number of sea turtles nesting has increased exponentially. Loggerhead sea turtles are not sexually mature until they’re 30 or 35 years old. Dodd sees a correlation.

“We look back about 30 years from five years ago and that’s right around when we started more intensively monitoring our nesting beaches and improving reproductive success,” Dodd said. “We were essentially putting a lot more hatchlings out in the water. This is not a cause and effect reason for a research study but when we look at the data you know our best guess is the implementation of turtle excluder devices and the implementation of these nest protection projects are the two things that seem to have resulted in us bringing in a recovery period for loggerhead turtles.”

Photo Courtesy of Lindsey Parker

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