In 1978, the loggerhead sea turtle was listed as an officially threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Adult turtles, which grow up to 300 pounds, come ashore every year to dig nests on America's eastern coast from North Carolina down to Florida, but the species was close to extinction in the 1980s. Whereas the nests at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Florida have seen more than 12,000 nests this year, that number was less than 50 annually just a few decades ago.
In Georgia, where turtle nesting season runs from May through August, researchers and volunteers have counted 2,292 loggerhead nests this summer, making this the fifth season in six years that the state has beaten its previous record. After averaging 1,036 nests per year from 1989-2009, Georgia saw a huge leap from 2010-13 when nests grew from 1,760 to 2,289.
"Every big year we get, the more confident we are in that conclusion that we're in a recovery period," said Mark Dodd, the biologist in charge of the sea turtle recovery program for Georgia's Department of Natural Resources. "So we feel really good about it."
So to what do the turtles owe their resurgence?
Researchers say there are two specific conservation efforts that have helped the species bounce back. The first is turtle nests discovered by themselves and various volunteers on state beaches that get covered with mesh that protects the eggs from predators, such as hogs and raccoons. The second is a 1987 law placed into effect that requires shrimp boats in U.S. waters to use fishing nets containing special trap doors that sea turtles can escape through.
Although it might be a while to know for sure if current nesting trends mean the turtles have fully recovered — turtles need 25 years or more before they begin to reproduce — the numbers have been very encouraging. Scientists are even confident enough to say Georgia's loggerhead population is within reach of its 50-year goal set when the species was first listed as endangered: 2,800 nests annually by 2028.
"We're not that far away," said Dodd. "Even 10 years ago if you'd asked me I would have said I can't see us getting there anytime in the future."