The pronouncement came after 24 years of efforts to help the threatened species recover.
“We can say with a high level of certainty the population is increasing, which is something we couldn’t say previously,” said Mark Dodd, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist who heads the state’s sea turtle recovery program. “We’ve had some big years previously, but still the overall trend was no increase in nesting.”
Researchers and volunteers counted 2,218 loggerhead nests during the season that runs from May through August, Dodd said. That shattered the previous records of 1,992 nests counted last year and 1,760 in 2010.
From the time Georgia started counting nests along its 100-mile coast in 1989 through 2009, the state’s beaches averaged just 1,036 nests per year, Dodd said.
The giant loggerhead sea turtles, which weigh up to 300 pounds, remain a fragile population that’s been protected as a threatened species under federal law for 34 years.
Still, researchers said the new nesting numbers appear to show that conservation efforts that began on a limited basis in the 1970s are working. Experts credit two specific efforts. Turtle nests discovered by government experts and volunteers on state beaches get covered with a mesh that protects the eggs inside from hogs, raccoons and other predators. Also, shrimp boats trawling in U.S. waters have been required since 1987 to use fishing nets equipped with special trapdoors that allow sea turtles to escape.
John Crawford, who teaches marine ecology for the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension Service in Savannah, said it would make sense that Georgia would begin to see a trend toward recovery because loggerheads take about 24 years to reach full maturity.
“My feeling is that we’re showing an increase in the numbers of turtles that have made it because of conservation efforts,” Crawford said. “There’s no way to prove that, but there’s a strong case for it.”
It’s tricky to spot trends because loggerhead turtles don’t nest every year, Dodd said. Depending on the abundance of food in the ocean, it can take anywhere from two to five years for a female to return to lay her eggs. That’s one reason researchers suspect Georgia’s nesting numbers hit a low of 358 nests in 2004.
The latest numbers bring Georgia a giant step forward to its recovery goal of 2,800 loggerhead nests.
“A couple of years ago that didn’t seem achievable,” Dodd said. “But now it’s looking more and more like a possibility.”