Thursday, September 15, 2016

Turtles breaking statewide nesting records 


A female loggerhead digs a nest, using all four flippers. After digging a chamber with her back flippers, she lays about 110 eggs. 
COURTESY PHOTO A female loggerhead digs a nest, using all four flippers. After digging a chamber with her back flippers, she lays about 110 eggs. COURTESY PHOTO They look like little crime scenes on the beach — bands of yellow police tape wrapped around wooden stakes stuck in small patches of sand where sea turtles laid their eggs.
Summer has brought a rash of nesting around the state, and with more than two months left in the season, the year already has seen a record number of incidents. The culprits? Loggerheads.
Across the state, from the panhandle to the tip of the peninsula and into the state of Georgia, records are being shattered. Although the final tallies from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have yet to be released, it appears the 200-plus beaches the agency analyzes will have a banner year. Georgia is reporting record numbers, too.
“We don’t have an answer that the numbers are up because of X, Y or Z,” said Anne Meylan, a senior research scientist at the FWC in St. Petersburg. “Certainly, conservation in Florida, and the U.S. and the Caribbean in general, has helped sea turtles.”

Loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings crawl to the sea. Florida and Georgia are reporting record numbers of sea turtle nests this season. 
BLAIR WITHERINGTON, FWC FISH AND WILDLIFE RESEARCH INSTITUTE Loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings crawl to the sea. Florida and Georgia are reporting record numbers of sea turtle nests this season. BLAIR WITHERINGTON, FWC FISH AND WILDLIFE RESEARCH INSTITUTE Ms. Meylan coordinates two studies through the agency’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute: the Statewide Nesting Beach Survey and the Index Nesting Beach Survey. Both are aimed at furthering research into and conservation of the wildlife.
Southwest Florida is coming in hot with an incredible increase — five Lee beaches from Bunche Beach to Bonita Beach monitored by the nonprofit Turtle Time Inc. were home to 271 nests on Aug. 30, while Collier’s shoreline totaled 1,956 among 10 beaches on Aug. 29. At the end of the 2015 nesting season, those same beaches reported only 183 nests in Lee and 1,509 nests in Collier.
“This is a record year. The last time we had a significant increase in turtles on Bonita Beach was 2012 when we had 122 nests,” said Eve Haverfield, director of Turtle Time. “To go up to 160 on that beach is quite astounding.”
Charlotte County’s Parks and Natural Resources Department recently reported 1,600 nests, up from 1,475 in 2015. The Boca Grande Sea Turtle Association reported 780 nests during the last weekend in August. While 2015 numbers weren’t at hand, the organization’s licensed sea turtle monitor, Maureen McConnell, said there was a huge increase in nests this year. Many localities attribute the numbers to Loggerheads, one of five sea turtle species who lay eggs along Florida’s 800 miles of coastline.
“We do have a record number,” she said. “Not as many greens as usual, and I think the nests are starting to taper off.”
Despite the fact that a good portion of loggerheads are in the egg-laying year of their two- to three-year reproductive cycle, experts agree that the bump is larger than normal and can’t attribute it to a single factor, thanks to the huge distances the animals travel during the decades it takes for them to start reproducing.
“These animals take as much as 30 or more years to reach sexual maturity,” Ms. Meylan said. “What’s showing up on our beaches now is like a light from a distant star. It took a long time to get here.” 
It could be, however, that almost 40 years of focused conservation efforts are paying off. Thanks to regulations put in place in the 1980s that control human behaviors like beach lighting and fishing, some experts are hoping that Florida is finally starting to see some returns.
Adrienne McCracken, field-operations manager at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, attributes the increase in the loggerhead population to bans on poaching, enforcement of regulations on fisheries and requirements for shrimping vessels to use turtle-excluding devices.
“Now, almost 30 years later, the population is reproductive and coming back,” she said. “It’s what everybody has been working for. I know the sea-turtle community is very hopeful that we continue to see this trend.” As of Sept. 12, 15,231 nests have been counted along the 9½ miles of coastline the facility monitors. Last year the count was 10,679 loggerheads for the season, which ends Oct. 31.
At John D. MacArthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach, more than 1,900 loggerhead nests have been accounted for along the 1½-mile strand, a figure that impresses park-services specialist Art Carton.
“It was definitely a great year for loggerheads,” Mr. Carton said. “It just shows that the population keeps increasing and doing better and better. All the things that were put into place in the ’90s are starting to bear fruit.”
During the peak of season in June and July, as many as 50 nesting females lumbered onto land each night.
“The double-digit nesting was exciting,” Mr. Carton said. “The species is healthy, for sure.”
In addition to loggerheads, two more species of sea turtles frequent the area during nesting season — greens and leatherbacks. Greens, whose status is threatened like the loggerheads, have a biennial pattern in laying their eggs, and this year is a down year.
“They’re known to do that,” Mr. Carton said. “You can see on the graphs that we have.”
The news is not bad. Rather, it means 2017 will bring an arribada of greens.
“Next year, we might have another 1,200 or 1,300 or more,” Mr. Carton said, noting the park beat its 2013 record of 1,395 greens with 1,493 in 2015.
Leatherbacks, brown behemoths that can reach weights of 1,000 pounds and lengths of 8 feet, are the rarest nesters and remain endangered.
The state’s sea turtle monitoring program was initiated in 1979 with the statewide nesting beach survey to determine the density, seasonality and abundance of turtles in Florida, while the agency took further steps in 1989 to monitor the species’ productivity. The programs relies on a network of licensed volunteers who patrol local coastlines to count and mark new nests to warn beachgoers that disturbing them is a criminal offense. Managers use the data to evaluate and minimize the impact of human activity on the turtles’ nesting patterns. A raft of regulations that manage fishing and beach activities also supports efforts to revitalize the sea turtle population.
Most counties do not have a centralized body tracking turtle counts, but instead rely on several volunteer organizations to accurately report nest numbers to the state. Lee County, for example, has at least three organizations — Boca Grande Sea Turtle Association, Turtle Time Inc. and Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Commission — independently licensed and diligently counting new nests each morning.
Ms. Meylan noted the state is home to more than 90 percent of the loggerhead nesting population in the northwest Atlantic region, the largest region in the globe.
“We’re going to have to keep monitoring, especially when we’re the world’s stewards of this species at this time,” she said. “How Florida goes is how the loggerhead goes.” ¦ 
— Staff writer Lindsey Nesmith contributed to this report. 

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