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A Turtley Unexpected Visitor in the Bay - October 7, 2018

Did you know you could see a loggerhead sea turtle right in here in Maryland?

The loggerhead sea turtle’s (Caretta caretta) primary habitat includes the southeastern United States, South America, Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, western Pacific, and Indian Oceans. They are migratory animals and have been recorded migrating up to 3,000 miles. While loggerhead sea turtles are most commonly seen in Florida in the U.S., they can be seen from May to November in the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays! Their nesting time is typically from June to August. Since they spend time floating on the water’s surface, boaters in the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays have been known to spot them. Younger juveniles are often found in mats of seaweed in warm ocean currents. Older juveniles and adults are usually found in coastal waters. They can also be found near coral reefs, salt marshes, and brackish lagoons. They typically nest on sandy ocean-side beaches.

These beautiful creatures have been on the threatened species list since 1978. In 2011, the listing was changed to break the loggerhead species into nine Distinct Population Segments (DPS). Four of these segments were listed as threatened: North West Atlantic Ocean, South Atlantic Ocean, South West Indian Ocean, South East Indo-Pacific Ocean, and South Atlantic Ocean. The other five were classified as endangered: North East Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, North Pacific Ocean, South Pacific Ocean, and North Indian Ocean. One of the biggest reasons for loggerhead decline is bycatch in commercial fishing nets. Bycatch is the accidental capture of turtles or other marine animals in fishing gear. Bycatch of turtles is common on trawling vessels, which pull a huge net behind a boat, and during longline hook fishing, which utilizes a long line of baited fishhooks. Since loggerheads need to go to the surface to breathe, they often drown once caught in nets. Sea turtles can also be trapped and killed by derelict fishing gear, which is any fishing gear that was lost or discarded in the ocean. This is often referred to as ghost fishing.

One-way fisheries can help reduce the death of sea turtles from bycatch, is to use “circle” fishing hooks designed to be more turtle friendly. Because of their shape, circle hooks are less likely to be swallowed by turtles, and sometimes avoid hooking them altogether. Additionally, Turtle Excluder Devices (TED’s) are commonly used, allowing turtles to escape from nets.

Another threat to loggerheads, and all sea turtles is human pollution. Plastic and other marine debris can be fatal to sea turtles if entangled or ingested. Water pollution from urban runoff and oil spills can harm sea turtles and their food source as well. Additionally, shoreline erosion and beach development are serious threats to nesting females. In some countries, loggerheads are sold for their meat and their eggs are poached as well, luckily this may be one threat that loggerheads do not have to face in Maryland (although, their eggs are still susceptible to being preyed on by racoons, crabs, birds, and foxes). With all these threats against loggerheads it is truly an amazing experience to spot one.

Recently, in September 2017, a loggerhead sea turtle nest successfully hatched on Assateague Island National Seashore on the Maryland Over Sand Vehicle Zone (OSV). In general, loggerheads nest from North Carolina to Florida, and rarely nest north of Virginia. Turtles have attempted to nest on Assateague in the past, but there were no recorded success stories until last year. Typically, the weather is too cold for the turtles to survive, but 2017 was the exception, although, they did take longer to incubate because of the lower temperature. Previously, when loggerheads nested in Assateague, the turtles did not grow and hatch due to the low temperatures. The 2017 nest was first found in late June. Assateague rangers then surrounded the nest with wire netting to protect it. The wire nets keep predators out but allow the turtles to leave when they hatch. The baby turtles began hatching in early September and continued into mid-September. Sea turtles typically lay about 110 eggs in a nest. In Assateague, about 100 hatchlings successfully made it to the water.

While no one can say the exact reason that a loggerhead turtle decided to nest in Assateague, some believe that climate change may be a factor. This could potentially mean more nesting loggerheads on Assateague, and the implications of that are very unknown. Others say this event reinforces the importance of keeping beaches undeveloped. Development can cause erosion and contribute to light pollution, which can cause turtles to crawl towards artificial light rather than the light reflecting from the moon which helps lead them to the ocean.

Since mature females often return to the location where they were hatched to lay their eggs, it is possible that more sea turtles will come to Assateague to nest in the future, but only time will tell! If you ever find nesting loggerheads, please contact DNR’s Wildlife and Heritage Service at (410) 260-8540.

Fragata is a Chesapeake Conservation Corps Member for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

 



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