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U.S. Set To Declare Loggerhead Turtles Endangered Species; 'Overwhelming Evidence' Links Fishing To Decline

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC), the world's oldest sea turtle research and protection group, today applauded the proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to designate Northwest Atlantic loggerhead sea turtles as an endangered species. Until 1998 Northwest Atlantic loggerheads were an Endangered Species Act success story. This proposed change in status from threatened to endangered recognizes the plight of rapidly declining Northwest Atlantic loggerheads, which nest on beaches from North Carolina to Texas.

Florida accounts for over 90% of loggerhead nesting in the United States. Protection provided by the Endangered Species Act and implementation of regulations requiring Turtle Excluder Devices in shrimp nets to prevent the drowning of entrapped turtles contributed to encouraging nesting increases from 1986 to 1998. Since that time, however, nesting throughout Florida has declined by nearly 50%. Nesting populations also are declining in the other states, for which long-term information is available. "This proposal is long overdue," said David Godfrey, CCC's Executive Director.

Loggerheads face numerous threats onshore where they nest and at sea, but accidental capture, injury and death in commercial fisheries is perhaps the greatest peril to their survival today. Caribbean Conservation Corporation and other conservation groups repeatedly have sounded the alarm about declining numbers of loggerheads. In January, concern about the species was elevated when loggerheads were ominously absent among sea turtles rescued from record cold waters in Florida. Over 4,000 juvenile sea turtles were affected by prolonged freezing temperatures. Unlike previous cold-stun events, when a near even mix of green turtles and loggerheads were impacted, almost all of the turtles found this year were green turtles. The absence of loggerheads among the massive number of turtles rescued raises concerns that juvenile loggerheads, as well as nesting adults, are in decline.

Through its action announced Wednesday, March 10, 2010; USFWS and NMFS also propose to list distinct loggerhead populations in the Eastern Atlantic, Southwest Indian Ocean, South Pacific and North Pacific as endangered rather than threatened, reflecting similar grave threats to the species around the world. Because it is the world's second largest remaining assemblage of loggerheads, however, saving Northwest Atlantic loggerheads is critical to the global survival of this species.

"Overwhelming evidence points to accidental capture in fishing lines, hooks, nets and dredges as the main culprit in these declines," says Godfrey. "International fleets capture, injure and kill tens of thousands of loggerheads on the high seas every year. In U.S. waters, NMFS has allowed our fisheries to kill thousands of large and small loggerheads rather than adequately regulate fishing." Loggerheads spend many years in the open ocean before settling into near-shore habitats; the varied loggerhead diet of soft invertebrates and hard-shelled animals puts the species at a greater risk from fisheries than any other species of sea turtle. Godfrey warned that much of what has been accomplished over the last three decades for this species will be lost if NMFS does not implement serious fisheries policy changes soon.

From its base in Florida, Caribbean Conservation Corporation has worked for 30 years to protect loggerheads and the habitats on which they depend. The organization has championed the protection of critical nesting sites and promoted sensible coastal development policies to ensure sea turtles and people can coexist on Florida's beaches. The State of Florida, through its Marine Turtle Protection Act, and many coastal governments have enacted strong laws and regulations to protect sea turtles. In recent years, CCC expanded its efforts to include comprehensive programs focused on reducing interactions with fisheries. Clearly, much more needs to be done to protect loggerhead sea turtles in Florida, the United States, and throughout the world.

"Despite the proposed new endangered status for this species, loggerheads can still be saved if United States efforts are appropriately focused." Godfrey said. "The National Marine Fisheries Service must immediately reduce loggerhead capture in fisheries."

Caribbean Conservation Corporation advocates year-round area restrictions for the reef fish bottom longline fishery in the Gulf of Mexico and long-awaited requirements for Turtle Excluder Devices in U.S. trawl net fisheries. In addition, local and state governments must adopt comprehensive changes in coastal management policies to ensure adequate protection of nesting beaches, Godfrey added.

"Caribbean Conservation Corporation will use all means at its disposal to reverse the decline of the loggerhead, which more than any other species is America's flagship sea turtle species," Godfrey pledged. "Our 50-year-long green turtle recovery program in Costa Rica has brought about a 500% increase in nesting of this species. We know how to achieve the same results for loggerheads, if the U.S. and other governments have the will."

About Caribbean Conservation Corporation

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation is the world's oldest sea turtle research and conservation group. An international nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, CCC was founded in 1959 to support the pioneering work of world-renowned naturalist and author, Dr. Archie Carr. Dedicated to ensuring the survival of sea turtles, the Florida-based organization, has developed worldwide programs to raise awareness through research, education, advocacy and the protection of the endangered species, as well as the natural habitats they depend upon. Caribbean Conservation Corporation's research programs over the past 42 years have yielded much of what is now known about sea turtles, and the important ecological role they play. CCC's goal is to restore sea turtle populations so that they continue to fulfill their ecological roles.

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