Sea turtle season has begun: May 1 – October 31
Although May is the “official” start of turtle nesting season on Florida’s West Coast, sea turtles don’t carry calendars. Some have come ashore months earlier, a few stragglers after the official end; Oct. 31.
This year, the Mote’s Sea Turtle Patrol recorded the first sea turtle nests of 2014 on May 6, on Longboat and Casey keys by loggerhead sea turtles. They also recorded a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle — the rarest of all sea turtle species — nested on a Venice Beach.
2012 is still on record as the highest recorded number of turtle nests on the beaches from Longboat Key to Venice with a total of 2,462, according to Mote Marine laboratory statistics. A far cry from the 735 loggerhead nests recorded back in 2007.
Even though protective measures of sea turtles have been in effect for decades, the ebb and flow of sea turtle nests have varied annually. “
We’re starting this season on an optimistic note,” said Kristen Mazzarella, senior biologist with Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program. “We’ve had some very strong nest numbers in recent years, both in Mote’s patrol area and other parts of the state, and we’re excited to collect more data to see how this year stacks up.”
June is the big month for mama sea turtles to lumber ashore at night at the beach of their birth. After laboriously making their way up-beach, they dig their nest and lay upwards of 100 golf-ball- eggs, cover the nest, then make their way back to the Gulf of Mexico.
After the hatch, when baby turtles make their way out of the sand, is when the trouble starts.
Hatchlings are programmed to go downslope from the nest, away from shadows of land and toward the horizon’s lightness.
Shore lights attract them instead, and they end up easy prey for birds, dogs, cats, crabs, ants, and other predators, and often die under auto tires or just dry up and perish.
Beachfront homeowners are required to dim their outdoor lighting during the nesting season, close drapes after dark and put beach furniture far back from the water to protect sea turtles. They need all the protection possible, since only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings live long enough to reach sexual maturity, which can take up to 30 years.
There are heavy state and federal criminal penalties for tampering with turtle nests.
So why should we care about the epic struggle of this ancient species?
Eve Haverfield, founder of Turtle Times, believes that each turtle species plays an important role in the health of our oceans with each contributing a specific function. “For instance,” she insists, “the Green turtle is the farmer of the ocean. It grazes on turtle grasses, which keeps water flow and the area where fish lay their eggs healthy.” If turtle grasses aren’t harvested, they will overgrow like weeds. Then sludge, detritus from the plants, and algae clog the ecosystem.
“The Loggerhead is the bulldozer of the ocean floor. It keeps the bottom loose with its massive head, as it digs around looking for food. Loggerheads have huge jaws. They eat conch, and when they break up the conch, some of the tissue feeds other sea animals. “
“The Leatherback eats only jellyfish. And jellyfish eat fish eggs. In those areas that no longer have Leatherbacks – for instance, the Mediterranean – the fishing industry has collapsed, because jellyfish have eaten all the fish eggs.”
“And the Hawksbill? It keeps coral healthy by eating algae and sponges that grow on coral.
Haverfield sees sea turtles as the conservation rangers of the ocean. They help protect our food supply, our recreational and commercial fishing industries, and perhaps unknown elements of the complicated marine ecosystem.
So, what can you do to help protect sea turtles?
- Don’t litter and pick up any trash you see on the beach. Sea turtles can mistake plastic bags, styrofoam, balloons, and other debris as food items. Monofilament fishing line can entangle sea turtles and other wildlife.
- Avoid using flashlights or lanterns on the beach at night.
- Never approach, harass, or shine lights on a sea turtle that comes ashore, or on hatchlings. Stay back at least 20 feet and quietly observe.
- Fill in large holes and flatten sand sculptures before you leave the beach around staked-off turtle areas.
- If you suspect that someone is tampering with a sea turtle nest, harassing a sea turtle or has possession of a sea turtle or any of its parts, please call FWC, your local sheriff’s department at 941-349-2900, and/or call Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program at 941-388-4331.
Mote has posted information about the first nests of sea turtle season, and they’ll continue to post weekly updates on nest numbers, at www.mote.org/2014nesting
Mote Aquarium, Janet Sailian of The Island Sand paper, Fort Myers Bach, Fl, and excerpts from Paul Roat’s past stories contributed to this article.