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Near record sea turtle deaths found

Hinesville Coastal Courier

24th May 2004

A near record 44 dead sea turtles were documented last week on Georgia beaches marking the third worst week in the 15-year reporting history.

Another 25 sea turtles have been reported so far this week and wildlife biologists with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division fear the numbers may surge higher in the coming days.

During the record year, 2002, 48 and 45 dead sea turtles were found in consecutive weeks.

The dead turtles were healthy, well fed and had no visible injuries, which leads DNR biologists to think they were drowned as a result of commercial fishing activity in federal waters, the DNR said.

Georgia DNR surveys indicate shrimp fishing activity has increased substantially over the last two weeks and is a possible source of mortality.

Currently, state territorial waters are not open to shrimping and will not open until biological data from department surveys determine an opening is appropriate.

Normally, the opening of shrimp fishing in state waters occurs in mid-June.

The 15-year average number of turtles stranded for this same time period is 11 turtles.

Most of the turtles killed were loggerheads, including at least three adult females. Loggerheads, which are a threatened species, are the most common sea turtles that nest on Georgia beaches.

Loggerhead sea turtle nesting on Georgia beaches reached a 14-year high during the 2003-nesting season. More than 1,500 loggerhead nests were found on Georgia's beaches last year.

According to federal and state law, all commercial shrimpers must have fully functional turtle excluder devices installed in their fishing nets.

The devices allow sea turtles to escape if accidentally swept up in the nets used to catch shrimp.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration imposed new regulations regarding the use of TED following the unusually high number of sea turtle strandings on Georgia's beaches during the 2002 turtle nesting season.

From May 5-18, 2002, more than 90 sea turtles, four times more than the 14-year average for that time period, washed up on Georgia's coast. Necropsies conducted on many of the turtles showed that there were no signs of illness or serious injuries, indicating that the deaths were fishery related.

TEDs are panels made of mesh webbing or metal grids inserted at a 45-degree angle into the throat of the shrimp net. As the nets are dragged along the bottom, shrimp and other small animals are allowed to pass through the TED and into the end of the net. Larger animals like sea turtles hit the grid and work their way through an opening in the net.

The new federal TED regulations, which went into effect in August 2003, has an opening theoretically large enough to exclude 100 percent of adult loggerhead and green turtles and most leatherbacks.

The protection and management of loggerhead nesting populations has been taking place in Georgia since as early as 1964, when researchers established a nest protection program on Little Cumberland Island as a result of concern over declining nesting stocks. By 1989, all of Georgia's barrier islands except for Williamson, Little Tybee, Pine and Wolf Islands were being monitored. In 1994, island managers adopted the Georgia Loggerhead Recovery and Habitat Protection Plan to standardize nest management procedures for the state.

Georgians can support the conservation and protection of the loggerhead sea turtle and its habitat by purchasing a wildlife license plate for their vehicles, or by donating to the "Give Wildlife a Chance" State Income Tax Checkoff.