The Importance of the Northeastern Gulf of Mexico to Foraging Loggerhead Sea Turtles
Identification of high-use foraging sites where imperiled sea turtles are resident remains a globally-recognized conservation priority. In the biodiverse Gulf of Mexico (GoM), recent telemetry studies highlighted post-nesting foraging sites for federally threatened loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta). Our aim here was to discern loggerhead use of additional northern GoM regions that may serve as high-use foraging sites. Thus, we used satellite tracking and switching state-space modeling to show that the Big Bend region off the northwest Florida coast is a coastal foraging area that supports imperiled adult female loggerhead turtles tracked from different nesting subpopulations. From 2011 to 2016, we satellite-tagged 15 loggerheads that nested on four distinct beaches around the GoM: Dry Tortugas National Park, FL; Everglades National Park, FL; St. Joseph Peninsula, FL; and Gulf Shores, AL. Turtles arrived at their foraging ground in the Big Bend region between June and September and remained resident in their respective foraging sites for an average of 198 tracking days, where they established mean home ranges (95% kernel density estimate) 232.7 km2. Larger home ranges were in deeper water; 50% kernel density estimate centroid values were a mean 26.4 m deep and 52.7 km from shore. The Big Bend region provides a wide area of suitable year-round foraging habitat for loggerheads from at least 3 different nesting subpopulations. Understanding where and when threatened loggerheads forage and remain resident is key for designing both surveys of foraging resources and additional protection strategies that can impact population recovery trajectories for this imperiled species.