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Turtles nest at record levels; Longboat leads in disorientations

Tracks left by sea turtle hatchlings in Florida show clear signs of disorientation | Credit: Sea Turtle Conservancy

Sea turtles laid a near-record number of nests from Longboat Key through Venice in 2017, report Mote Marine Laboratory scientists who monitor this 35-mile stretch of beaches each day of nesting season, May 1-Oct. 31.

Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation & Research Program and its Sea Turtle Patrol volunteers documented 4,503 nests from all sea turtle species across Mote’s patrol area in Sarasota County. Of those, 4,424 were laid by threatened loggerhead sea turtles and 79 by threatened green sea turtles. Two nests in the loggerhead group were sampled for genetic testing to determine if they are hybrids from a loggerhead and green mating.

Though the total nest count did not surpass the record 4,588 nests in 2016, this year brought the highest-ever number of green sea turtle nests in Mote’s 36-year history of local sea turtle conservation. The combined loggerhead/green totals on Longboat, Lido and Siesta keys broke their individual records, while totals on Casey Key and Venice did not.

“We’ve had several years of high nest counts, and though we can’t predict the future definitively, we don’t see any reason to expect a decrease,” said Melissa Bernhard, staff biologist with Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation & Research Program. “We’re looking forward to 2018. These sea turtles nest every two to three years, so we’ll expect to see many of the turtles from the record year in 2016 returning.”

Bernhard added: “The cool part about these high numbers is that we’re seeing a lot of new turtles.”

During this year’s night-time tagging effort on Casey Key, Mote scientists encountered sea turtles 591 times — identifying 380 distinct individuals. Of those individuals, 293 were “neophytes” documented and tagged for the first time. It’s not clear whether these turtles are young females that recently matured or whether they’ve previously gone “under the radar,” nesting on nearby beaches without tagging programs.

In any case, this year’s results continue an encouraging trend.

“We looked at our average number of local nests laid per week over the past decade, and the data are encouraging,” said Kristen Mazzarella, senior biologist with Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation & Research Program. “In 2008-2011, our highest average count of nests laid per week was under 150; in 2012-2015 the weekly average peaked in the upper 200s; and in 2016-2017 it peaked just under 600. We think that the conservation efforts we started over three decades ago have contributed to this increase; sea turtles can take about three decades to mature, so some of the earliest hatchlings we protected are likely coming back now as moms. We hope the new generation of hatchlings we protected this year will thrive and keep this positive trend going.”

Working under a state-issued Marine Turtle Permit, Mote scientists and trained volunteers document and mark each sea turtle nest from Longboat Key through Venice, collecting a suite of data to support the scientific understanding, management and conservation of sea turtles in Florida and the region. They collect more detailed data from a representative sample of nests, monitoring those through hatch, and educate residents and visitors about the ongoing challenges sea turtles face.

This year, artificial lights along some shorelines continued to disorient baby sea turtles and sometimes even adult females. Florida’s primary species of sea turtles emerge at night and follow dim, natural light to return to sea. Artificial lights can lead them away from the ocean and into roads, swimming pools, and other danger zones, while causing them to exhaust their energy stores.

Also, Mote scientists found evidence that 104 local sea turtles interacted with beach furniture this year, sometimes dragging chairs caught on their backs. During nesting season, it is critical to remove furniture from the beach at night, or at very least, stack items as close to the dune line as possible without impacting native vegetation.

Each year, storms and high surf wash out some nests. Though some nests were washed out by Hurricane Irma, Tropical Storm Emily and other weather systems this year, fewer were lost to storms than in 2016. Sea turtles lay multiple nests over the course of a season, helping compensate for storm impacts.

The last nest of 2017 was laid by a green sea turtle on Aug. 24 on Casey Key, hatched on Oct. 27 and was inventoried to document its outcome on Oct. 30.

To help Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation & Research Program prepare for the next busy nesting season, register now for Mote’s longest-standing fundraiser, the 32nd Annual Run for the Turtles, taking place April 7, 2018, on Siesta Beach in Sarasota County. This sanctioned 5K race and 1-mile fun run/walk invites people of all ages to get active and make great strides for sea turtles. www.mote.org/run

An episode of the TV program WEDU Quest featuring Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation & Research Program has been nominated for a Suncoast Regional EMMY® Award in the Environment category. Watch episode 211, “Sea Turtle Nesting Season.”

Here is list of 2017 Suncoast Regional EMMY® nominees. (WEDU program is listed on page 17.) The awards ceremony will take place Dec. 2 at the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando, according to the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Suncoast Chapter website.

Visit www.mote.org/environmentalupdates for Mote’s sea turtle nesting counts from previous years, along with sea turtle-friendly tips.

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