New Brunswick

Marine turtle may be deemed at risk

Loggerhead turtles, a species found in Atlantic Canadian waters, could soon be classified at risk by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Loggerheads feed in Atlantic Canadian waters

The loggerhead turtle has been classified as a threatened species in the U.S. since 1978. (CBC/Quirks & Quarks)

A species of marine turtle found in Atlantic Canadian waters could soon be classified as at risk.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is asking for public input on adding the loggerhead turtle to a list of creatures protected by Canadian law.

Loggerheads are large sea turtles, which can weigh as much as a 1,000 pounds and can have skulls the size of a small child's.

They breed in southern climates, but come north to Atlantic Canada to feed during part of the year.

The main threat to them here is getting caught on hooks from long line fishing fleets, said Saint John zoologist Don McAlpine, who was a member of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada that assessed the loggerhead as endangered in April 2010.

"When they're pulled to the surface, they're often alive and they can be released, but the concern is in many cases these turtles have been injured in the process of being hooked and that they will actually die later, and evidence suggests that mortality can be quite high in those circumstances," said McAlpine, who works at the New Brunswick Museum.

Hundreds killed by fishing hooks

There was an estimated 1,200 loggerhead turtles caught annually in Canadian tuna and swordfish longline fisheries between 2002 and 2008, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Up to 500 of those caught are believed to have died each year, based on post-hooking mortality rates of 20 to 45 per cent, according to department reports.

Females don't breed every year. The interval between nesting seasons is usually two or three years.

Worldwide population numbers are unknown, but scientists studying nesting populations have noted marked decreases, despite endangered species protections.

In the United States, they have been classified as a threatened species since 1978.

McAlpine wants to see them declared at-risk in Canada under the Species At Risk Act (SARA).

"The hope is that with some of these species that are at risk, that those problems could be identified before we get to endangered status…and things could be done to reverse the general trend toward extinction," he said.

SARA is intended to protect species at risk of extinction in Canada and promote their recovery. It includes prohibitions on killing, harming, harassing, capturing or taking individuals of species listed as threatened or endangered.

The act also prohibits the sale or trade of individuals of such species (or their parts), damage or destruction of their residences, or destruction of their critical habitat.

In addition, SARA specifies that a recovery strategy must be prepared for species that are listed as threatened or endangered, addressing all potential sources of harm, including harvesting activities, so that the survival and recovery of the populations concerned are not jeopardized.

Industry has taken steps

Although loggerheads are not currently formally protected, the fishing industry has taken steps to try and reduce its impact on loggerhead turtles, said Tonya Wimmer, of the World Wildlife Fund in Halifax.

"Things like using circle hooks, which essentially are ones that are much more curved than the standard sort of J-shape," she said.

"They also have gear on board that is specialized gear for de-hooking turtles."

Loggerhead turtles are primarily carnivores that eat jellyfish, conchs, crabs, and fish with their strong jaws. They also occasionally eat seaweed.

They can swim up to 24 km/h and will travel hundreds of miles out to sea.

Their average lifespan in the wild is more than 50 years.