Protect nesting sea turtles

Sea turtles

Volunteers with Gulf World Marine Institute return a loggerhead turtle to the Gulf of Mexico.

File photos
Published: Thursday, May 29, 2014 at 09:17 AM.

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.

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