Editor's Note: This article orginally appeared in Oceana's Winter 2015 magazine. Click here to view the original article.
Scientists estimate that only one in 1,000 loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings survive to adulthood. From the moment these turtles hatch from their eggs, they’re at risk from natural and manmade threats. Hatchlings make a tasty treat for wildlife along the shore, including ghost crabs, seagulls, and sharks, while artificial lighting on oceanfront hotels and highways may lure turtles inland to their death. And reaching sexual maturity doesn’t necessarily mean turtles find a safe haven: Overfishing, pollution, marine debris, and disease threaten turtles at all life stages.
Sadly, all loggerheads found in U.S. waters are at risk. The North Pacific Ocean Distinct Population Segment is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the Northwest Atlantic Ocean Distinct Population Segment is listed as threatened. Fortunately, after mounting pressure from Oceana and conservation allies, this summer the federal government created overdue protections that will help protect loggerheads for years to come.
“The threats to loggerhead sea turtles are numerous,” says Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana’s vice president for U.S. oceans. “We need strong protections to safeguard turtles from fishingrelated threats, seismic airgun use, and oil and gas development. These actions will help to allow this iconic species to finally recover on both coasts.”
The Northwest Atlantic population of loggerhead turtles nests on beaches through the southeast United States, and forages, migrates, and seeks shelter in Sargassum seaweed habitat along the Gulf Stream off the Atlantic coast. Coastal development, offshore oil and gas development, and sea level rise continue to threaten their nesting beach habitat, while marine pollution, indiscriminant fishing practices, seismic airgun use, and boat strikes threaten their ocean habitat.
In 2013, Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) after it failed to respond to petitions dating back to 2007 that advocated for stronger protections for loggerhead sea turtles. The government listed loggerheads as threatened under the ESA in 1978, but it never instituted the critical habitat protections that the ESA listing requires.
In response to that lawsuit, the federal government made a historic move for Atlantic loggerheads this July, when it established the largest critical habitat designation to-date. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protected 685 miles of nesting beach from North Carolina to Mississippi, and NMFS protected more than 300,000 square miles of ocean habitat from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
The critical habitat designation requires that all federal activities — anything from building beach-front hotels to authorizing fisheries to operate — within these waters receive an extra level of scrutiny before proceeding, ensuring they do not threaten loggerhead prey and habitat sources. The beach protections cover 84 percent of the turtles’ known nesting habitat, while the ocean habitat protection encompasses five different offshore environments that loggerheads need: near-shore reproductive areas, breeding areas, migratory corridors, winter habitat, and Sargassum seaweed habitat.
“Critical habitat must be designated for threatened and endangered species by law, because it is so crucial to ensuring that human activities do not place these animals at risk. Studies have shown that species with designated critical habitat are twice as likely to show signs of recovery than those without it,” says Amanda Keledjian, a marine scientist at Oceana. “This designation will help ensure the long-term survival of loggerheads.”
Shortly after loggerheads in the southeast won this major victory in July, loggerheads on the West Coast gained their own form of protection: safety from the California swordfish drift gillnet fishery. This fishery deploys mile-long nets at dusk each night to catch swordfish, but ends up capturing a staggering amount of other marine life, including dolphins, sea turtles, sea lions, and whales. The intersection of loggerheads and drift gillnets becomes particularly acute during years of El Niño conditions, when the warm, nutrient-rich waters of the Pacific draw loggerheads further north in search of pelagic red crabs, one of their main prey sources.
“North Pacific loggerheads are found across the North Pacific Ocean, with nesting grounds in Japan to foraging hotspots in the central and eastern Pacific. All along the way, they’re running a gauntlet of threats from pelagic longlines and coastal drift gillnets when they enter Baja and Southern California,” says Ben Enticknap, a marine scientist at Oceana. “When they get caught in drift gillnets, they drown and die. Fishing mortality is one of the biggest threats to this endangered population.”
NMFS is required by law to close the drift gillnet fishery in the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area — an area greater than 25,000 square miles off California, stretching from just north of Santa Barbara to south of San Diego — during predicted or observed El Niño years from June 1 to August 31. When NMFS didn’t take the legally required action to prohibit drift gillnets in the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area this summer, despite clear signs of El Niño conditions, Oceana, CBD, and TIRN called on the federal agency urging NMFS to follow its own rule to protect these endangered sea turtles. After mounting pressure, NMFS closed the fishery in the Pacific Loggerhead Conservation Area from July 25 to August 31.
“This is smart fisheries management — it is stopping interactions with fishing gear that can be fatal to turtles at a time when we know turtles are in our water,” says Susan Murray, Oceana’s deputy vice president for the U.S. Pacific. “It doesn’t shut down the fishery permanently or forever, but it prevents the intersection of an endangered species with a gear known to kill this species at a critical and otherwise deadly time.”
Though this closure was a positive step for loggerheads, Oceana would like to see drift gillnets banned in an industry-wide shift to more sustainable fishing gear for selectively targeting swordfish. In the interim, Enticknap says full observer coverage and strict limits on all bycatch would be important and positive steps toward safeguarding marine life from drift gillnets.
The California swordfish drift gillnet fishery has one of the highest rates of bycatch — over the last five years it’s been estimated that 61 percent of the marine life caught by the fishery is thrown overboard. It’s such a dirty fishery that the State of Oregon prohibits its fishermen from using these nets, and drift gillnets are banned in waters off of Washington state, as well as internationally on the high seas and in the Mediterranean.
“Ultimately, drift gillnets need to be a prohibited gear type on the West Coast. There are other legal, more sustainable ways to catch swordfish cleanly without having high levels of bycatch,” says Enticknap. “In the meantime, Oceana is working to get 100 percent observer coverage and strict limits on bycatch, like dolphins, seals, megamouth sharks, billfish and more.”
While there is more work to be done to protect loggerhead sea turtles, the actions taken this summer are certainly a victory for these marine reptiles. Loggerheads are the most frequent nesting sea turtles in the U.S., and these protections work to safeguard an iconic marine species — one that connects land and sea, fishermen and conservationists.
“If we want to ensure that sea turtle populations recover and remain resilient against future threats such as climate change, it is essential that we minimize the number that die in fishing nets and protect habitat,” says Keledjian. “These Oceana victories are a stepping stone for the future, where loggerheads in both the Atlantic and Pacific are protected both from fishing injuries and habitat degradation.”