Loggerhead sea turtles nesting in Georgia have hit a new high for the fourth straight year.
Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Mark Dodd of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday that more than 2,141 nests – last year’s record total – have been documented on barrier island beaches.
The count had reached 2,242 by this morning, according to www.seaturtle.org. While nesting season is nearly over, the total will not be final until fall, as scientists use genetics to identify 11 “unknown” nests.
This summer marks only the second time since comprehensive surveys began in 1989 that the federally threatened reptiles have laid more than 2,000 nests in Georgia. Nest totals have also climbed steadily since 2009, the longest such span in 25 years and an encouraging change from the usual up and down fluctuations in loggerhead nesting.
DNR analysis last year showed that the increasing trend is statistically significant.
“We feel like we’re seeing the continued recovery of loggerheads,” said Mr. Dodd, a senior Nongame Conservation Section biologist with the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division.
The health of this iconic species effects coastal environments and economies, an impact heightened in a state where more than 30 percent of residents 16 and older take part in wildlife-watching activities.
Mr. Dodd credits the recovery to a wide range of conservation measures, from Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative members using wire screen to shield nests from predators to commercial fishery regulations reducing sea turtle deaths off Georgia’s coast and far into the Atlantic Ocean. The Sea Turtle Cooperative is a network of volunteers, researchers and agency employees who patrol barrier island beaches daily during the sea turtle nesting season, protecting and managing nests.
Mr. Dodd cautioned that the current nesting run still falls shy of federal recovery benchmarks: a 2 percent annual increase for 50 years resulting in a statewide total of 2,800 nests a year.
But he’s excited about the apparent rebound, particularly after a slow start to the nesting season had some turtle watchers thinking 2013 might be a down year for loggerheads.
And while nesting comes to a close, hatching is in full swing. About 23 percent of sea turtle hatchlings on Georgia beaches have dug out of their sand nests and headed toward the surf.
The hatching success rate – hovering at about 60 percent – has been boosted by the lack of tropical storms swamping Georgia so far this summer.
Mr. Dodd said two major factors affect sea turtle hatching success rates: predation, mainly by feral hogs and raccoons, and tropical storms, including the storm-spawned tidal surges that inundate nests.