Sea Turtle Conservation in Georgia and an Overview of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island, Georgia
Terry M. Norton, DVM, DACZM
St. Catherines Island Wildlife Center, Midway, GA, USA
Along the coast of Georgia, a cluster of eight barrier islands, are separated from the mainland by an extensive system of salt marshes and sounds. Unlike other barrier islands of the east coast, Georgia’s remain relatively undeveloped and retain much of their native wilderness.
All seven species of sea turtles are listed as federally threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The primary causes of the marked decline of sea turtle populations worldwide include loss of nesting beaches to human development; excessive harvesting of sea turtles and eggs; injury or death of turtles entangled or ingesting marine debris; and incidental capture and drowning during commercial fisheries activities. Additionally, infectious disease such as fibropapillomatosis (FP) and pollution are also having a negative effect on sea turtle populations.
Five species of sea turtles can be found in Georgia’s coastal waters; however, the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) is the only one to nest in significant numbers with approximately 1,000 nests found annually. The green (Chelonian mydas) and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) sea turtles occasionally nest in Georgia and use the coastal waters as a foraging habitat and migratory pathway. Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys kempi) migrate through and forage in Georgia waters as sub-adults. During the summer of 2005, the first Kemp’s Ridley nest in Georgia was found on Wassaw Island (Georgia Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network [GSTSSN], 2005), which is unusual because this species typically nests in large numbers (e.g., arribada) at Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. The hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), exploited for its beautiful shell in other parts of the world, is found only occasionally in Georgia waters.
Major threats to survival of Georgia’s sea turtles are numerous, including both biotic and abiotic nesting threats (rain, tidal wash over, rising sea level, predation), boat collisions, and interactions with various fisheries related activities especially trawling fisheries. All US shrimp trawlers are now required to be equipped with turtle excluder devices (TEDs), which allow captured turtles an escape route. As human populations increase along the Georgia coastline, additional threats of marine pollution, light pollution, and collisions with boats have increased. Stranded sea turtles are often found on the coastal areas of Georgia, most of which are dead and a small percentage still alive. From 1995 to 2004, the average annual number of stranded sea turtles in Georgia was 238 (GSTSSN, 2005). Over the past decade, there has been a steady increase of stranded live turtles along the southeastern Atlantic coastline (Pers. comm., W. Teas 2004). Currently, Georgia’s stranded live sea turtles are evaluated and provided emergency care by the author and Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR) wildlife biologists. Since there are no facilities in Georgia in which to rehabilitate the turtles after the initial evaluation, they must be transported long distances to reach a suitable facility, with the closest being located in Charleston, SC and near Daytona, FL. On occasion, these facilities are filled to capacity and the turtles have to be prematurely released or housed in sub-optimal conditions.
The Georgia Sea Turtle Center (GSTC) will eliminate long distance travel to and from these facilities. Rehabilitation should be part of the overall sea turtle conservation program because the most common age class of turtles to present for rehabilitation consists of older sub-adult and mature adult turtles. These are the most valuable members of the population, because they are either close to or are currently capable of reproducing. Several components of the natural history of the sea turtle emphasize the importance of the older age classes to the population: (a) sea turtles are long-lived animals, potentially surpassing human life spans; (b) the loggerhead sea turtle does not reach reproductive maturity until approximately 30 yr of age; and (c) it has been estimated that for every 1000 eggs laid, only one will survive to become a mature adult. An additional reason for the importance of rehabilitation in sea turtles is that most of the illnesses and injuries they encounter are either directly or indirectly caused by humans; therefore, we have an obligation to assist in their recovery. To fill the need for rehabilitation, efforts have been underway for several years to create a facility in Georgia to care for injured and ill sea turtles so that more of them reach reproductive age.
An historic power plant in the historic district on Jekyll Island will be renovated and serve as the educational component of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Additionally, facilities for rehabilitation and veterinary care will be added onto the existing building. The primary focus of the center will be to educate the general public regarding sea turtle biology, natural history, and conservation; to conduct health related research on free-ranging sea turtles in Georgia; and to rehabilitate injured and ill sea turtles found in Georgia and surrounding states.
For more information on the GSTC and how you can help sea turtles and the center, go to https://gstc.jekyllisland.com/ and http://www.jekyllislandfoundation.org.
1. Norton TM. 2005. Sea turtle conservation in Georgia and an overview of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island, Georgia. Geo. J. Science. 63(4): 208–230.