By Tom Baird
Sea turtle nesting season began May 1. Volunteers, U.S. Geological Survey employees, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) employees, and State Park personnel have begun monitoring Gulf County beaches for turtle crawls and signs of nesting activity. Teams cover nesting beaches at night, and other teams walk the beaches early in the morning. Why the effort? Because all marine turtles are either classified as threatened or endangered. Losses to fishing gear entanglements and degradation of nesting beaches and near shore habitats in the past century, coupled with boat collisions and new predators, decimated sea turtle populations. Research and monitoring are aimed at ensuring maximum nesting success for these magnificent creatures.
Fossils show there were once more marine turtle species. Now, only seven species of marine turtles remain worldwide. Five of these species roam Florida waters. They are the Loggerheads (Caretta caretta), Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas), the big Leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea), the mostly tropical and solitary Hawkbills (Eretmochelys imbricata), and the smallest and rarest, the Kemp’s Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys kempii).
It is mainly Loggerheads that use Gulf County beaches for nesting, although there are occasional Green turtle nests, and a few Leatherbacks use Franklin County beaches. Loggerheads, Greens, and Kemp’s Ridleys use St. Joseph Bay to forage. Lush meadows of turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) in St. Joseph Bay especially attract the herbivorous Green turtles, which are a common sight in the bay.
The often crowded beaches of southeast Florida see the most turtle nesting activity in the state. However, the beaches of the northwest Florida gulf counties, from Escambia to Franklin, are important, traditional turtle nesting sites, with Gulf County usually having the most turtle nests per year in the northern Florida Gulf. The bay scallop is often the unofficial symbol of Gulf County, yet considering the number of sea turtles in the bay and on our beaches, and our critical location as turtle nesting habitat, our symbol should probably be a sea turtle.
Both native and introduced predators take their toll on incubating eggs and the tiny hatchlings. Coyotes, raccoons, armadillos, ghost crabs, birds, cats, fire ants, and on some beaches, feral hogs, will either dig and eat the eggs or take the hatchlings as they emerge from the nest. Human trash, like food wrappers, left on the beach can attract predators that get used to checking the beaches for food. Nest destruction increases on beaches with a lot of human trash.
In the 2013 nesting season, there were 292 Loggerhead nests and 10 Green turtle nests on Gulf County beaches, according to FWC data. In a single six-mile stretch of the St. Joseph Peninsula from Stump Hole to the State Park boundary, there were 95 loggerhead nests alone and one green turtle nest, according to the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol. This is down from 227 loggerhead nests on that section of beach in 2012. Considering that this is the section of beach on Cape San Blas with the heaviest concentration of renters and residents, the likelihood of human activity negatively affecting nest success is high. Lights and beach furniture left out overnight can disorient and trap hatchings, as well as confuse and block the females coming ashore to lay their eggs.
Beachfront lighting is a well know problem. Research has shown that female turtles favor dark beaches to lay their eggs. While turtles will nest on beaches with artificial lights, their hatchlings are at greater risk. The lights may confuse the hatchlings and cause them to move not toward the sea, but up the dunes toward lights, or meander disoriented. Artificial lighting is the single greatest threat to hatchlings reaching the sea in Florida. Gulf County has a good and well-enforced beachfront lighting ordinance. Yet any lights on the beach including flashlights and headlights can confuse both adult nesting females and hatchlings. Turning off unnecessary lights is a simple, effective, energy efficient solution to preventing turtle hatchling mortalities.Or just close the drapes. Our Gulf Co. beaches should be dark during the turtle nesting season – May 1 to October 31.
We can all do our part to help ensure the nesting success of marine turtles on our beaches. Taking care to remove all trash and debris from a beach outing will avoid attracting nest predators. Also, turtles often mistake floating bits of plastic debris as food and can choke or have fatal internal blockage from ingesting the bits of trash. Beach furniture should be moved off the beach at night. Other counties have enacted ordinances to require that beaches are left clear at night. Clutter on the beach, especially tents, cabanas, lounges, rugs and coolers, are not only unsightly, but can trap the hatchlings heading to the water. They become vulnerable to predators and can be weakened in their efforts to reach the sea. Remove all beach furniture and boats and gently educate visitors that leaving beach furniture overnight imperils sea turtles. Leave the marked nests alone and keep pets out of the nest area. These are all just simple things that require little effort and can make a big difference to sea turtle nesting success.
Also, if you see Turtle Patrol volunteers walking the beach at sunrise, give them a wave. They are your neighbors giving their time and energy to help ensure that we will always have marine turtles in our waters.
Tom Baird has been a fisheries biologist, high school and community college teacher (oceanography and microbiology), director of a science and environmental center, teacher of science and principal in Pinellas County as well as an educational consultant. He retired from the Florida Department of Education and he and his wife divide their time between Tallahassee and Cape San Blas.