WASHINGTON — After encouraging gains in the 1990s, populations of loggerhead sea turtles are now dropping, primarily because of commercial fishing, according to a federal review.
The report stops short of recommending federal endangered status for the species, now designated threatened.
But scientists and environmentalists say it should serve as a wake-up call about the future of loggerheads.
"We are very concerned," said Mark Dodd, a Georgia wildlife biologist. In 2006, the state counted the third lowest loggerhead nesting total since daily monitoring began in 1989.
"As a biologist you're always trying to find that point at which we really have to start doing something drastic if we want to maintain loggerhead populations on our beaches."
The state is not there yet, he said, but it increased the turtles' protections under its own endangered species law.
Loggerheads can grow to more than 300 pounds. The species is believed to be one of the oldest.
The Southeast -- Florida in particular -- is one of the two largest loggerhead nesting areas in the world; eggs are laid and hatched along beaches from Texas to North Carolina. The other major nesting area is in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman.
According to the federal report, U.S. nestings have dropped almost 7% annually in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years. Numbers in South Florida are down about 4% annually; populations in the Carolinas and Georgia have dropped about 2% a year.
The review, a five-year status update completed last month and required under the Endangered Species Act, compiled data from previous local reports, which showed similar trends. It was conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which jointly have jurisdiction over protecting the turtles.
The U.S. loggerhead trend is a marked turnaround from the steady or increasing numbers found in the 1990s.
Researchers are puzzled by the shift; some suspect expanding commercial fishing operations are to blame. The report said fisheries were the "most significant man-made factor affecting the conservation and recovery of the loggerhead."