Federal agencies are proposing to increase protections for loggerhead turtles, the long-lived sea creatures known for their big heads and capacity to swim thousands of miles across the Pacific.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule Wednesday that would list seven distinct loggerhead populations, including two in the Pacific, as endangered.
Since loggerheads were listed as threatened in 1978 under the Endangered Species Act, they have continued to decline. Wildlife agencies say the primary cause is incidental capture in fishing nets and long lines. But the turtles also have lost beach nesting habitat.
"More needed to be done to protect this species," said Andrea Treece, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which along with other environmental groups petitioned the government to change the listing for North Pacific and Northwest Atlantic loggerhead populations.
Endangered status would trigger designation of critical habitat zones for the two populations found in the U.S., prompting protections that could affect future offshore oil drilling and other activities.
But marine agencies concede that U.S. regulations alone will not save loggerheads, which live globally in the temperate and tropical zones of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and Mediterranean Sea.
Loggerhead nests in the U.S. are found along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, from southern Virginia through Alabama. The North Pacific population hatches on the Japanese coast and some juveniles migrate to within a couple of hundred miles of California, where they feed in open waters.
Loggerheads are thought to live up to 100 years. They grow to about 3 feet long and can weigh more than 200 pounds. Their big heads give them the strength to crunch through the shells of crabs, snails and "anything they can get their mouth on," said Jeffrey Seminoff, a biologist with the fisheries agency.
U.S. fishermen in the North Pacific have gotten better at avoiding loggerheads with the help of the federal program, Seminoff said. It maps loggerhead locations based on their preferences for certain ocean temperatures.
"The real problem is those countries that are just not playing the conservation game," he added.