Species facing perilous journey

A loggerhead sea turtle hatchling leaves flipper tracks behind as it makes its way to the ocean last August on Hilton Head Island.

Kristin Goode

The loggerhead turtle is going nowhere fast. Even in the Southeast, where some studies suggest the threatened sea turtle might be ready to turn the corner on recovery, it's declining and at risk of extinction.

That's the conclusion of a federal team of biologists that assessed the status of the loggerhead worldwide. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can recommend changing or not changing its species status, and will make that decision early next year, said Barbara Schroeder, NOAA national loggerhead sea turtle coordinator.

The review comes in the midst of one of the worst years for the turtles' nests in South Carolina -- following a record year for nesting -- and after a report last week of hatchlings being stolen from a nest on a North Carolina beach.

The review "doesn't conclude the turtle is increasing or doing really well," she said.

"There might be some glimmers of hope, but overall we still need to be concerned," said Elizabeth Griffin, marine wildlife scientist for Oceana, an environmental advocate.

The loggerhead is an iconic, endearing creature of the Lowcountry coast -- a long-lived sea turtle that grows to the size of a kitchen table and crawls ashore in the spring and summer to lay eggs in the dunes. As a threatened species, the turtle has drawn a residents' army of volunteers keeping watch on nests up and down the coast.

In South Carolina, about 2,100 nests have been reported so far this year, down from a banner year of 4,500 in 2008. Only two years in the past 30 have seen fewer nests, and one of those years was 2004. The overall trend of numbers in those 30 years suggests a decline.

Among other recent studies, trawl counts in South and North Carolina have suggested an increase in the number of young turtles in the water, which regulators say is likely the result of requiring turtle excluder devices on fishing nets and other conservation measures. That could translate to more nests in the next five or 10 years.

But the federal review said the turtles still face threats here because of a large and varied fishery fleet, limited law enforcement and some lack of available catch-reduction technology. In other regions of the country and world, the turtle is at risk of extinction or at immediate risk of extinction.