Sea turtles break nesting record, UCF researchers find
Note: All photos were taken as part of permitted research conducted by UCF Marine Sea Turtle Research group. All sea turtle video footage taken with permission from U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Courtesy Kate Mansfield and U.S Fish and Wildlife
Four decades ago, biologists thought green sea turtles might go extinct. This year, the endangered reptile dug a record number of nests at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, with two months still left in their nesting season.
"It's an incredible thing," said Llew Ehrhart, professor emeritus at UCF, who's studied turtle nesting at Archie Carr since the 1980s.
In the 1970s, biologists could only find a handful of green sea turtle nests at Archie Carr and the Melbourne Beach area.
This year, UCF researchers counted 12,026 green turtle nests at Archie Carr refuge, already crushing a record the turtles set at the refuge in 2013 — 11,839 nests.
The nesting at Archie Carr is significant, because biologists consider that span of beach among the most important sea turtle nesting spots in North America and indicative of how turtle nesting is going as a whole.
In general, green sea turtle nesting has "on" years and "off" years, with the number of nests spiking every other year. So biologists anticipated an "on" year. But this is the first time green turtle nests surpassed 12,000 nests, UCF researchers said.
Nesting on the "on" years has ballooned, from 455 nests in 1988 to more than 8,400 nests by 2000. And now they dig six times that amount of nets.
"This is really a comeback story," Kate Mansfield, a UCF assistant professor of biology, said in a release. Mansfield leads a team of students and research scientists who monitor turtle counts on the beach during turtle nesting season, which runs May 1 to Oct. 1.
"It is a really remarkable recovery and reflects a ‘perfect storm’ of conservation successes," Mansfield added, "from the establishment of the Archie Carr, to implementing the Endangered Species Act, among many other conservation initiatives. It will be very exciting to see what happens over the next 20 plus years."
Green sea turtles are just one of three species that use the refuge as their nesting grounds. Endangered leatherback and threatened loggerhead sea turtles also nest on Brevard County’s beaches.
Sea turtles dig about 80 percent of their nests in the United States. Archie Carr is home to one of the largest nesting beaches for loggerhead turtles in the Western Hemisphere, with among the highest density of nests.
Hatchlings paddle out against an ever-strengthening current of challenges, which only the fittest of every 10,000 fends off long enough to become an adult turtle.
The increase in green sea turtles nesting is four decades of conservation measures paying off, Ehrhart says.
Pressure from commercial fishing, diseases and habitat loss chipped away at the reptile's numbers. Hatchlings wander into roads because of bright beach lights. In nations where their sweet-tasting meat is savored by the locals, the perils are worse.
Native Americans and early European settlers also once harvested green sea turtles for their meat.
But laws prohibiting harvesting sea turtles, excessive beach lighting and fishing nets that cause turtles to drown have helped their numbers rebound.
In 1978, the federal government listed the green sea turtle under the Endangered Species Act.
Green sea turtle populations in Florida and the Pacific coast of Mexico are listed as endangered. Elsewhere, the species is listed as threatened.
Jim Waymer is the Environment Reporter at Florida Today. Contact him at 321-242-3663 or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @JWayEnviro and at www.facebook.com/jim.waymer.