Featured Image Credit: Marcio Scatrut
By Alice Morris
2016 will be a tough act to follow for Florida’s sea turtles.
According to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a record number of sea turtles built their nests along Pinellas County’s beaches last year.
Volunteers counted 318 sea turtle nests, an all-time high since 1978 when the aquarium began monitoring beaches. Those nests produced an incredible 13,199 hatchlings.
Lindsey Flynn, senior sea turtle nesting biologist at CMA, is hopeful that this increase signals a new normal for sea turtle numbers. “We have never observed that many sea turtle nests in one year,” she said.
Far from being an isolated incident, similar trends occurred throughout Florida’s coastline last year. In Broward County, the Sea Turtle Conservation Program counted 3,567 sea turtle nests, a county record.
Sarasota County also saw a record-breaking 4,588 nests laid, over twice the number of 2015.
Kristen Mazzarella, senior biologist with Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research program said of the record numbers, “We hope that one reason we are seeing this increase is because the baby turtles Mote started to protect thirty years ago are now old enough to come back and lay their eggs.”
This sudden “baby boom” is especially surprising since last year saw two hurricanes make landfall along Florida’s coast, the first major storms to hit the state in eleven years.
Typically, a bad hurricane season would be followed by low sea turtle numbers as severe storms can damage and destroy nests and erode the beaches where sea turtles lay their eggs.
But experts have a few theories for why sea turtles managed to thrive in 2016.
The first theory is that loggerheads and other species of sea turtle follow a nesting cycle that varies from year to year and that cycle naturally brought more sea turtles to Florida’s beaches in 2016 than in recent years.
A second theory suggests that a baby boom from a previous year produced large numbers of sea turtles that are now mature enough to begin returning to Florida’s coastline to nest.
The final theory is that the conservation efforts that began in the 1970s to protect Florida’s threatened and endangered sea turtles may finally be showing results.
Sea turtle population trends can be difficult to track, in part due to the sea turtle’s late sexual maturity. Loggerheads take between 12 and 30 years to begin producing offspring and green sea turtles take even longer, between 20 and 50 years.
Female sea turtles nest every two to three years, laying between 80 and 120 eggs. However, the vast majority of hatchlings don’t survive to adulthood.
Before they even reach the sea, hatchlings face many threats, including predation from other animals, and human interference.
After hatching, sea turtles instinctually move towards the brightest light in their surroundings, usually the moon reflecting off the ocean. But artificial lights and illuminated objects on the beach can attract hatchlings away from the sea, significantly reducing their chances of survival.
Female hatchlings that manage to survive to adulthood will return to the same beach year after year to lay eggs.
It’s a tough world out there for sea turtles, but as 2016 proved, it’s nothing that these resilient animals can’t overcome.
Hopefully, 2017 is another banner year for sea turtles!