The loggerhead turtle, the most common sea turtle found in the Chesapeake Bay, is inching closer to gaining "endangered" status.
Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are proposing to elevate the reptile known for its outsized head on the nation's list of endangered animals.
In the Chesapeake Bay, where they are mostly found in Virginia waters, loggerheads have declined nearly 60 percent, said Jack Musick, a professor emeritus at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who has studied loggerheads for more than three decades.
In the 1980s, Musick said, close to 10,000 juvenile loggerheads made the trip to Virginia every summer to feed on its abundant seafood. Now, he says, it's closer to 3,000. The turtles arrive after a years-long, round-the-world trip that includes a stop in the Azores, in the Atlantic Ocean. They reach maturity at about 25 years of age.
Since the 1970s, the entire population of loggerheads has been designated a "threatened" species. The agencies' new proposal divides the worldwide population into nine subpopulations. Of those, seven, including the East Coast population, would be considered endangered.
The turtles are being assaulted from all angles. Their food supply keeps dwindling-in the 1980s, they fed on horseshoe crabs, which in recent years have been overfished to supply bait for the conch and eel fisheries. In the 1990s, their preferred meal was the blue crab, but it, too, started declining. Lately, they've been subsisting on menhaden and croakers.
East Coast loggerheads have also lost their beach nesting habitats. In Florida, their primary nesting area, rampant coastal development has left the turtles without much of their habitat.
But, Musick said, "The principal source of mortality, without a doubt, is commercial fisheries."
The turtles, unfortunately, like to nest in areas where bluefin tuna and shrimp swim. The National Marine Fisheries Service has required that shrimp nets have turtle excluder devices-hatches where the turtle can escape. It has worked pretty well, Musick said.
This isn't the case in the long-line tuna fishery, which includes more than 50 countries. While U.S. long-liners are working with the government to decrease mortality by using the less-popular mackerel instead of squid bait and circle hooks that the turtles are less likely to swallow, the rest of the world isn't necessarily following suit. Musick thinks the increased pressure from the long-line industry is pushing the loggerheads into greater decline, after a rebound of sorts in the 1990s.
"They set hundreds of thousands of hooks trying to catch tuna in the middle of this pelagic nursery," Musick said. "With the increase in these long-line fisheries, that would explain why the recovery stalled and then declined again, because these long-lines were increasing around the same time."
The endangered listing gives managers more tools to protect the turtles. For example, Musick said, the United States could refuse to import fishery products from countries that don't use the conservation methods.
Public comments on the proposed listing will be accepted at www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/turtles/loggerhead.htm through June 14, 2010. Public hearings requests must be submitted by June 1.