Unofficial tallies for the loggerhead nesting season, which runs from May through August in Georgia, show the threatened species dug at least 2,284 nests to lay their eggs. That’s up from 2,241 nests counted last year.
More importantly, the numbers show loggerhead nesting in the state has continued to increase every year since 2010, bucking a two-decade trend of up-and-down fluctuations.
In 2012, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources declared for the first time that the state’s loggerhead population seemed to be recovering after 24 years of conservation efforts.
Seeing nest numbers increase to another record level in 2013 adds more evidence the turtles are rebounding, said Mark Dodd, the DNR biologist who heads Georgia’s sea turtle recovery program.
“Another big year in a row like this just gives us more confidence we’re in a recovery period,” Dodd said.
“The last four years have seen increases each year in nesting, which is something we have not seen before.”
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 35 years. The turtles dig their nests on beaches from the Carolinas to Florida. Georgia’s relatively small stretch of coastline means it has one of the region’s smallest sea turtle nesting populations.
Still, the nesting counts for Georgia in recent years have been astounding considering its beaches averaged just 1,036 nests annually from 1989 to 2009, a period when up-and-down nest counts indicated recovery was flat. In 2010 loggerhead nests in Georgia hit a record of 1,760. Then they jumped to 1,992 in 2011. And for the past two years the total has been more than double the state’s 20-year average.
If the trend continues, Dodd said it’s possible Georgia might reach 2,800 nests — its recovery goal for the state loggerhead population.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago what are the chances we’re going to get to that goal in the next four to five years, I’d have said no chance,” Dodd said. “Now it’s something we could definitely achieve.”
Official 2013 nesting numbers for Georgia won’t be ready until mid-October. Dodd said he’s awaiting genetic test results from 10 or more nests to determine which species of sea turtle dug them, but most will likely be loggerheads.
Sea turtle researchers say two conservation efforts that began on a limited basis in the 1970s are likely responsible for any rebound in loggerhead populations. 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.
In Georgia nest counts are up even on beaches that attracts the most people. Volunteers on Tybee Island, the state’s largest and most densely populated public beach, have been working with the island’s small city government since 2009 to reduce artificial lighting at night from streetlamps and businesses, beachfront homes and hotels. Too much light can scare away turtles coming ashore to lay eggs, and can disorient hatchlings trying to find their way to the ocean.
Loggerhead nests counted on Tybee Island in 2012 jumped to 23, more than double the number seen the previous two years. The unofficial tally for this year is 21.
“We thought last year was just an anomaly, so we were really surprised when it ended up repeating itself,” said Maria Procopio, director of the Tybee Island Marine Science Center, which coordinates a group of more than 60 volunteers who walk the beach each morning during the summer for new turtle nests. “We keep a board at the front of our building with updates for the public. Everybody loves turtles.”