With loggerhead nestings on Atlantic beaches continuing to trend down, federal scientists have proposed the sea turtles' designation be changed from "threatened" to the more critical "endangered."
The change "marks a turning point in our ability to protect loggerhead sea turtles," said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of three environmental groups that petitioned for the change. "By recognizing and preventing impacts to regional populations and their habitats, we'll have a much better chance of putting these magnificent, prehistoric animals on a path to recovery instead of extinction."
Loggerheads face threats from people, dogs and birds in their few months on beaches as eggs and briefly as hatchlings and from sea creatures and fishing gear during their life at sea.
Since estimating the number of loggerhead turtles in vast oceans is impossible, the best way to gauge population health is to count the number of nests. Mature female loggerheads crawl onto beaches to lay and bury eggs.
The number of nests has dropped 1.9 percent per year in South Carolina over the past 30 years, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. The decrease has been similar in Georgia and North Carolina, and higher in Florida.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service took those numbers into consideration in their species designation proposal, released Wednesday. The agency also proposes breaking the worldwide loggerhead population into nine species because turtles from various geographic regions have little to no interaction. In the Northwest Atlantic region off South Carolina, the loggerhead would be deemed endangered, according to the proposal.
It's difficult to predict the proposal's effect on human activity along the coast. Projects such as beach renourishment and beachfront construction already had to take into account the impact on sea turtle populations, according to Chuck Underwood, a spokesman for the fish and wildlife service.
Other endangered sea turtle species, including Kemp's ridley and leatherback, also nest on the state's beaches, and many projects already have to clear "endangered" hurdles for them.
It's also unclear how the proposed changes would impact the fishing industry, though conservation groups hope it will encourage limits on longline fishing gear that entangles turtles. Shrimpers off the S.C. coast already have to use special nets with devices that allow turtles to escape.
The proposal will be submitted to the Federal Register on Tuesday. The process to changing the official status will includes a public comment period.
Turtle advocates cheered the proposal.
"It's important that they keep a close eye on these guys," said Kelly Thorvalson, coordinator of the sea turtle rescue program at the S.C. Aquarium in Charleston.
Loggerheads are the most common patients at the aquarium's turtle hospital, where sick or injured creatures that wash up on local beaches are taken to heal.
In recent years, turtle watch groups have tried to make sure more sea turtle eggs survive to hatch and more of the hatchlings make it into the water. They mark nests to warn people to keep dogs away from them. And they stay up at night to shepherd baby loggerheads into the waves.
Without human aid, hatchlings naturally head toward lights, a natural reaction to the moon over the ocean. But lights on beach houses often confuse the babies, and they can die in the dunes before reaching the water.
In the ocean, many predators feed on the hatchlings. As they grow, human activities such as fishing and boating lead to turtle deaths. Some studies have estimated as few as one in 1,000 hatchlings survive the 35 years to sexual maturity.
"More people, more development, more boats - they all pose threats to the turtles," Thorvalson said.
She hopes the turtle watch programs, which began taking off in the 1980s, will have an impact on nesting numbers in the coming years. But in the meantime, she sees the endangered species designation as an important step.
"We've been doing everything we can to inspire folks to save these animals," Thorvalson said. "If we don't take these steps today, we may not have these creatures to protect in the future."