SAVANNAH — Rare loggerhead sea turtles reached a conservation milestone on the coast of Georgia in the midst of a strong nesting season on southern Atlantic beaches.
Georgia wildlife officials announced this week that more than 2,890 loggerhead nests have been counted this summer along the state's 100-mile coast. Not only is that a new record for Georgia — smashing last year's record count by more than 550 nests — but it also surpasses the state's long-term recovery goal for the species.
A target set years ago called for Georgia to reach 2,800 nests by the year 2028 — 50 years after the federal government listed loggerhead sea turtles as a threatened species. With nesting expected to continue for several weeks, Georgia could easily top 3,000 nests this year, said Mark Dodd, the biologist who oversees the sea turtle recovery program for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
"We never thought we would get here this quickly," Dodd said Friday, though he cautioned it's still too early to declare loggerheads a recovered species. "We have a lot of other criteria we have to meet. But it's a great milestone and a place to stop and congratulate everyone."
Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina are all reporting robust nest numbers since the season for loggerheads began May 1. The giant turtles, which can grow to weigh up to 300 pounds, typically lay eggs through the end of August.
As of Friday, South Carolina was close to its record of 5,193 loggerhead nests set in 2013, said Michelle Pate, coordinator of the state's sea turtle program. North Carolina was a little more than 200 nests shy of its record number — 1,304, also from 2013, according to Matthew Godfrey, sea turtle coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
"It's definitely above average," Godfrey said. "It's hard to say where we're going to end up, but it's definitely a good year."
Both states still have a ways to go to reach their respective recovery goals: 9,000 nests for South Carolina and 2,000 for North Carolina.
Florida, which accounts for roughly 90 percent of loggerhead sea turtle nests in the U.S., doesn't keep a running tally of nests because of the overwhelming numbers. Nor does it have a recovery target like Georgia and the Carolinas.
Anne Meylan of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission said Friday that numbers from a sampling of beaches indicate Florida could top last year's total of 89,295 loggerhead nests. But Meylan said she doesn't expect a record season.
A decade ago, Georgia was averaging only about 1,000 loggerhead nests per year — a third of the total expected for 2016.
Dodd said a number of factors have helped the sea turtles crawl toward recovery in Georgia, from fishing boats using shrimp nets with built-in escape hatches for turtles, to island communities limiting artificial light along beaches at night to avoid disorienting hatchlings trying to find their way to sea.
On Blackbeard Island, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a wildlife refuge 50 miles south of Savannah, volunteers combing the beaches at daybreak each day have tallied 426 loggerhead nests this summer — more than 100 ahead of last year.
Nancy Hickey, the agency's supervisory biotechnician on the island, said her volunteers often find 15 nests a day now along 11 miles of beach where they used to see five or less.
"We come out some days and you can just look down the beach and see crawl after crawl after crawl" where nesting turtles leave telltale trails in the sand, Hickey said. "It's so exciting."