SAVANNAH, Georgia — After four busy nesting years on beaches from Georgia to the Carolinas, loggerhead sea turtles this summer laid their eggs at a much pokier pace.
The sluggish nesting season for the giant sea turtles wrapped up over the Labor Day weekend. And preliminary numbers show volunteers in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina counted far fewer loggerhead nests in 2014 than in recent years.
For Georgia, the slow season snapped a four-year streak of record-breaking turtle nest totals. Final numbers won't be ready until October, but a preliminary count shows 1,191 nests were counted along the 100-mile Georgia coast from May through August. That's the slowest nesting season since 2009, and barely more than half of last year's nest count of 2,289 — the most ever recorded in Georgia.
The numbers have taken a dive two years after Georgia wildlife officials declared that steady increases in loggerhead nesting since 2010 showed strong evidence that the threatened species was rebounding. Sea turtle conservationists in the neighboring Carolinas also saw a 2014 nesting slump after a few years of a hatchling boom.
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. Sea turtle experts say they're not surprised, and certainly not alarmed, to see dramatically lower nest counts this summer. Adult female loggerheads don't lay eggs every year, and some take two or three years off after nesting.
"The overall trend is still a statistically increasing trend, so this year doesn't change the fact that we feel like we're in a recovery period," said Mark Dodd, the wildlife biologist who heads the sea turtle recovery program for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. "It would take two or three more low years before we start to say we don't have an increasing trend anymore."
While low compared to recent years, the 2014 nest count in Georgia falls just a hair shy of the state's 25-year average of 1,200 nests annually. Dodd said he saw nothing this year that would explain fewer nests other than natural fluctuations. He said the number of dead, sick and injured loggerheads found on Georgia beaches this summer was 108, down from 165 a year ago.
Each summer, loggerhead sea turtles off the southeastern U.S. coast crawl from the water onto beaches from North Carolina to Florida to dig holes in the sand and lay their eggs.
Sea turtle researchers say two conservation efforts dating back to the 1970s are likely responsible for any rebound in loggerhead populations. Turtle nests discovered on beaches by government biologists and volunteers get covered with a mesh that protects the eggs inside from hogs, raccoons and other predators. Also, shrimp boats in U.S. waters have been required since 1987 to use nets equipped with trapdoors so sea turtles can escape.
In Georgia, loggerhead sea turtles averaged 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, and the number increased each year through 2013.
Neighboring coastal states also reported a big drop off in nesting this summer after posting some of their strongest years. In North Carolina, only about 550 loggerhead nests were counted this year, compared to about 1,200 in 2013, said Matthew Godfrey, sea turtle program coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
Michelle Pate, who heads the sea turtle conservation program for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said the unofficial 2014 tally for her state is 2,065 loggerhead nests, down from 5,198 a year ago. Like Dodd, she chalked the difference up to natural fluctuations in the turtle's reproductive cycles.
"We had four really good years," Pate said. "To the average person it looks a little more dire, but it's sort of biological in nature."
No 2014 numbers were available for Florida, which sees the vast majority of loggerhead nesting in the U.S. The state recorded 77,975 nests last year and appears on target to see about the same or even a little higher count this year, said Anne Meylan, who coordinates the statewide nesting beach program for Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. She said loggerheads that nest in Georgia and the Carolinas form a genetically distinct population from those seen in most of Florida, so it's not unusual for their reproductive cycles to differ.
On Tybee Island, Georgia's most densely populated beach, nests counted by volunteers walking the shoreline each summer morning dropped just a little this year to 18, compared to 21 a year ago.
At the Tybee Island Marine Science Center, which coordinates those volunteers, director Maria Procopio said she's not discouraged that nest numbers dipped for the first time in years. It wasn't long ago, in 2009, that Tybee Island reported just three loggerhead nests.
"Our nesting numbers were so, so low for so long that just being up in this range is really a comfort," Procopio said.
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