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'Endangered' listing urged for loggerhead turtles

BOSTON - The federal government on Wednesday recommended an
endangered-species listing for the loggerhead turtles in U.S.
waters, a decision that could lead to tighter restrictions on
fishing and other maritime trades.
The massive, nomadic sea turtles have been listed since 1978 as
threatened, a step below endangered, but federal scientists
proposed ratcheting up the designation after reviewing the state of
the species.
Researchers said primary threats to the loggerheads include
injury and death from fishing gear and damage to their nesting
areas.
The joint proposal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration’s fisheries division and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service is not a final decision. If approved, it puts loggerheads
on track for an endangered listing by the summer of 2011. The
proposal now enters a public comment period.
Environmental groups who’d been pushing an endangered listing
said the proposal was a “turning point” they hope will lead to
greater turtle protections.
“I think it’s huge day for loggerhead sea turtles,” said
Elizabeth Griffin, a marine wildlife scientist at Oceana. “I think
it really draws attention to the fact these turtles are not doing
well and more needs to be done to protect them.”
No one really knows how many loggerheads there are, or how many
are being killed by fishing gear or other activities. A species
doesn’t need falling numbers to be endangered, it can get the
listing if it’s shown to be threatened by one of five factors, such
as disease or “manmade factors affecting its continued
existence.”
Griffin cites a 40 percent drop in the number of nesting females
in Florida over the last decade as evidence of trouble. But the
Fisheries Survival Fund, an East Coast scallopers group, said in a
letter early this month that nesting beach surveys can’t provide
good evidence of decline because they measure only mature females,
who take at least 30 years to reach breeding age.
Shaun Gehan, an attorney for the Fisheries Survival Fund, said
an endangered listing is unneeded for a species there’s no evidence
is in danger of extinction. If new protections are mandated for the
turtle, it could affect not only fishermen, but maritime traffic,
coastal development and waterfront use, Gehan said.
“We are extremely disappointed that they’ve taken this
approach,” he said.
Loggerheads are named for their large heads, which contain
potent jaws that can crush the hard shells of prey such as conch.
The turtles are about the size of a fist when they hatch and make a
frenzied dash to the surf. But they typically grow to more than
three feet in length and 250 pounds. The animal can log thousands
of miles as it travels across oceans.
Barbara Schroeder, national sea turtle coordinator for NOAA’s
fisheries division, said the biggest threats to the North Pacific
loggerhead include damage to primary nesting sites, which are
mainly in Japan, as well as accidental snaring of the turtles in
fishing gear.
Andrea Treece of San Francisco-based Center for Biological
Diversity said the turtles get hooked by Hawaiian longline
fishermen targeting swordfish and tuna and can be injured or
drowned.
On the East Coast, the main threat to turtles is gear from the
region’s various fisheries, Schroeder said.
Gehan said that scallopers have developed dredges to keep the
turtles out with a chain mat that covers the opening. Critics say
the dredges keep turtles out, but also crush them, though survival
fund officials say there’s no evidence of that.
A primary benefit of the endangered status would be increased
public pressure on protecting the species, Griffin said. But the
government would also have to determine “critical habitats,” such
as where the turtles reproduce or forage. Such places could be
subject to additional protections for the turtles, including
restrictions on maritime development or fishing.
A balance needs to be found to help a species Griffin called
“the ambassadors of our oceans” because they travel great
distances and can be seen up close when they venture on land.
“I think that really gives people an appreciation for our
turtles and marine life,” she said.

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