WASHINGTON — The Obama administration took steps Friday to protect the loggerhead sea turtle, downgrading the status of some populations from threatened to endangered.
The loggerhead has been listed as threatened since 1978, but a decline in habitat and population in several areas of the world led marine scientists to review the classification.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the change, under which the North Pacific population of turtles is among five groups to be listed as endangered. But the Northwest Atlantic population, which includes the southeast Atlantic and Gulf coasts, remains among four others listed as threatened.
"That's not good," said Doug Inkley, a senior wildlife biologist at the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, Va. "What this means is that all loggerhead sea turtles are threatened or endangered. We're going in the wrong direction."
The brownish-red turtles can weigh as much as 250 pounds and swim for thousands of miles. They don't start nesting until they're close to 30 years old; they can live to be 100.
Millions of children and their parents know the loggerhead from two characters in the animated film "Finding Nemo" — Crush, Nemo's surfer-dude friend, and his son, Squirt.
Inkley said he wasn't sure exactly why the classification didn't change for the Northwest Atlantic population of loggerhead turtles, since a lot of the discussion revolved around it.
"I find it interesting that only a year ago, NOAA proposed that this population be listed as endangered, yet somehow they changed their mind," he said. "It's a higher level of alertness and awareness. There are further restrictions on endangered species."
However, NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service can only take scientific information into account, Inkley said, excluding factors such as economic impact. But, he added, "Habitat is very much an issue."
Some environmentalists said the government's decision didn't go far enough.
"The failure to recognize Northwest Atlantic loggerheads are endangered ignores the massive impacts of the BP oil spill and increasing threats from shrimp trawl fisheries on this imperiled population," said Chris Pincetich, a marine biologist with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project of the Turtle Island Restoration Network. That group, the Center for Biological Diversity and Oceana all petitioned the government for increased protections for sea turtles in the North Pacific and Northwest Atlantic in 2007.
Loggerhead turtles still face many obstacles, Inkley said, including commercial fishing, habitat loss, marine debris and climate change. Commercial fishermen are required to use turtle excluder devices to prevent catching them unintentionally, but not everyone is abiding by the rule.
"While the incidental catch has gone down significantly, unfortunately, most of the continuing deaths are attributed to shrimp trawling," he said.
In explaining its decision, NOAA said some of the problems of unintentional turtle by-catch have been resolved with the turtle excluder devices on shrimp trawlers. Also, it said, the practice of long-line fishing, another problem for sea turtles, has declined amid decreasing fish stocks and a slow economy.
Those who reviewed the government's proposed changes said the Northwest Atlantic population is stable. "What we're seeing now is more of a flat line," said Sandy MacPherson, the Fish and Wildlife Service's national sea turtle coordinator.
DuBose Griffin, the sea turtle coordinator at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said she was still concerned about the decline of habitat in Florida, where 50,000 to 70,000 turtles nest every season.
"As long as there's a threat in the water taking out adult reproductive animals, there's always going to be a chance that the population will decline," Griffin said. "If we see it start dropping again, we may have to revisit this."
"It's something we are keeping our pulse on," MacPherson said.
The commercial fishing industry commented in opposition to proposed changes, said Jim Lecky, the NOAA Fisheries Service director for the Office of Protected Resources, but didn't influence the outcome.
"We'll continue to work with those industries to make sure their footprint in the environment is appropriate," Lecky said.
Inkley said that while many shrimp fisherman are using turtle excluder devices faithfully, government officials should crack down on those who don't.
"We do know that compliance is not good in some areas," he said. "People need to abide by these rules and regulations."
Inkley said the endangered classification gives an added measure of protection to turtles wherever it applies, and he hoped it would help them.
"We still have a long way to go," he said.
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