ATLANTIC CITY - If there is a superstar at the Atlantic City Aquarium, it would be Grohman, a 200-pound loggerhead sea turtle.
The 14 year-old reptile shares a 25,000-gallon tank with cownose rays, dogfishes and other Mid-Atlantic sea creatures, and has been highlighted in many discussions about sea turtles, the importance of protecting them, their habitats and the environment.
"He's definitely one of the centerpieces," Christopher FitzSimmons, the Atlantic City Aquarium's education assistant, said in an interview in late September. "And a lot of people don't know you can find sea turtles in New Jersey."
Grohman's wild counterparts, however, are not faring as well. Many loggerheads die when they are accidentally caught by commercial fisheries and three populations - including turtles in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean - are at a high risk of becoming extinct, according to the latest federal report commissioned by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The study, which was released in August, found all nine loggerhead turtle populations around the world could decline in the future. Several hundred loggerhead turtles per year are estimated to be caught by sea scallop trawlers between New York and North Carolina, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service study. Mid-Atlantic bottom trawlers killed about 616 sea turtles per year between 1996 and 2004, the study said.
Other problems facing loggerheads include injuries and fatalities from boat propeller collisions, oil spills, ingesting marine garbage and the degradation of nesting grounds from beachfront development, erosion and bright electric lights that disorient baby turtles, the report said.
'A complex problem'
In the United States, most loggerhead sea turtles are born on Florida beaches and they spend their lives in the open seas along the continental shelf. Northeast Atlantic Ocean loggerheads travel up to New Jersey waters along the East Coast in the summertime and they can go as far north as Canada.
The federal government has adopted some fishing regulations to protect the turtles. Since the mid-1990s, shrimp trawlers have been required to have turtle excluder devices, specially designed gear that keeps turtles and other large marine animals out of nets. Turtle excluders are also required for the summer flounder fisheries during the winter months from Virginia to North Carolina, according to Barbara Schroeder, the National Marine Fisheries Service national sea turtle coordinator.
New Jersey does not require turtle excluder devices by law. But government officials are evaluating the other fisheries to see if the devices are needed and new regulations could be proposed in the future, Schroeder said.
"It's a complex problem that crosses our boarders as well," Schroeder said. "We're working domestically to try and reduce this (turtle) bycatch."
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine recovered two live loggerhead turtles and 19 dead ones this summer. Most of the dead turtles were killed by boating propeller injuries, although some die in fishing long-lines and gill nets, according to Bill Deerr, a field standing technician. The two surviving turtles - one who was found in Brigantine and the other in the ocean - were sent to the Virginia Aquarium for long-term rehabilitation, Deerr said.
The push for regulation
While loggerhead turtles have been protected as a threatened species since 1978, some environmentalist believe more regulations should be in place.
New Jersey already has loggerheads listed as an endangered species. But a petition to upgrade the animal's status on the federal level to endangered and to increase protection for their nesting beaches and habitats is pending before the National Marine Fisheries Services and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The request, which led to the latest federal study, was made in 2007 by two environmental advocacy groups, the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Arizona, and Oceana, based in Washington, D.C. A final decision on the petition will be made in February, Schroeder said.
Elizabeth Griffin, a marine wildlife scientist and campaign manger for Oceana, said the organization sued the government in May to make it take action faster. Griffin pointed out that some loggerhead nesting populations have dropped as much as 40 percent since the last federal scientific review.
A greater effort should also be made to study and get more data on the adult loggerheads living in the open seas, where the turtles spend the majority of their lives after hatching, Griffin said.
FitzSimmons, the Atlantic City Aquarium educator, said he believed loggerheads should be federally upgraded to the endangered list because it would help further protect the turtles and institute stricter penalties against people who attack them.
Last year, FitzSimmons saw a rescued loggerhead at The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Fla., who survived a machete attack. He also heard stories about turtles being sold on the black market. "I couldn't believe people would take the time to do something to degrade an animal," he said.
FitzSimmons noted that Grohman, who was brought to Atlantic City in 2001 from Camden's New Jersey State Aquarium, now Adventure Aquarium, would not be released into the wild because he grew very dependent on people and the aquarium was concerned the turtle might swim up to boats or associate splashing water with food if he was sent to the ocean.
Jack Keith, the Atlantic City Aquarium executive director, agreed that more should be done to protect loggerhead turtles for environmental reasons. Keith noted that loggerheads, which eat jellyfish and other small fishes, are near the top of the food chain and losing them could hurt the ecosystem.
"You don't want it to be threatened or extinct because, somewhere else, something else on the continuum benefits from them, or is threatened for it," Keith said. "Some people think sea turtles are cute, but you don't want to lose any species."
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