Three weeks into the 2018 season, the first sea turtle nests soon will begin to appear on area beaches.
Locally, Gulf Islands National Seashore is responsible for protecting and managing nests within the seashore and on Pensacola Beach. This year, GINS is implementing new sea turtle nesting protocols that limit human interaction.
“Much of what we're gonna [sic] do will be the same, but we’re gonna [sic] eliminate a lot of the night time activities,” said Brent Everitt, chief of communications for GINS. “So, what we won’t be doing is operating UTV's on the beach at night and we won’t be monitoring the nests at night."
That’s contrary to the approach that had been used for years by National Park Service biologists and volunteers in their monitoring of sea turtle nests within their coverage area, which stretches from Johnson Beach at Perdido Key, Ft. Pickens, and Santa Rosa Areas, within the Seashore, as well as Pensacola Beach, outside the boundary of the national park.
“What we know is that these nighttime activities can have adverse effects on nesting sea turtles, on hatchlings, but also on other species that rely on this habitat especially at nighttime,” said Everitt, specifically referencing the Perdido Key Beach Mouse, which is an endangered species. “So, we do need to take action to ensure that what we’re doing to help one species is not hurting another species.”
It turns out the new protocols regarding nighttime monitoring of sea turtle nests are not new at all. They fall under the guidelines of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has the authority to issue permits for all sea turtle monitoring and research throughout the state thanks to a Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We always have to get a permit through them (FWC),” Everitt said. “So, what we’re doing is lining up our protocols with what they are already saying to do. So, it’s going to be the same thing that our visitors and our listeners will hear and see in places like Navarre Beach and Destin and at state parks, and other places like that.”
What it really means, says FWC’s Dr. Robinn Trindell, is coordinated use of management techniques that involve less human manipulation and handling of the nests.
“We recognize the incredible effort and dedication of the volunteers that have been doing this work over the years, based on our review of the things that are impacting sea turtles statewide we think we really need to move toward a less invasive type of management,” said Trindell, biological administrator for FWC’s Marine Turtle Management program.
Trindell says there’s been an evolution among sea turtles in their strategies for survival based on where they lay their nests. For example, nests closer to the water are more likely to get washed over or maybe even washed out. However, she points out that relocating the nests in an effort to help could have unintended consequences that could affect the population over time.
“Because sea turtles have temperature dependent sex determination, where you get females that develop in nests that have hotter sand and males developing in the cooler sands, it’s likely that those nests closer to the water are gonna [sic] be the nests that produce more of the males that you need in your population,” Trindell said.
In response to FWC guidelines, Gulf Islands National Seashore plans to stop its relocation of vulnerable nests. Also, in lieu of the nighttime monitoring they used to do, staff and volunteers are now hitting the beach to look for nesting activity each and every morning.
“They’re looking for those crawls, crawl marks,” said GINS spokesperson Brent Everitt. Sometimes the crawl marks lead to a nest, which are marked so that visitors can avoid them. But, Everitt adds they also keep track of false crawls. “It’s important data for us to understand, when an adult female sea turtle comes ashore and doesn’t nest; why did that happen.”
Some of the reasons for the false crawls could be human interaction and/or lighting on the beach, both of which they’re working to reduce, to help sea turtles thrive.
“You know, we have some good things happening in the community with the local Escambia County lighting ordinance, with the restoration funds that they’re providing folks to do that retrofitting; with people taking upon themselves to eliminate outdoor lighting,” he said. “We are slowly working our way toward a self-sustaining population, which is really what we want in the long term.”
When it comes to the success of sea turtle management efforts, it’s showing across the state. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported record numbers of green turtle nests in the last few years, including over 53,000 in 2017. The state also has recorded almost 97,000 loggerhead sea turtle nests last year.
Locally, FWC recorded 200 loggerhead nests in Escambia County. Elsewhere across the region, there were 32 loggerhead nests in Santa Rosa, 76 in Okaloosa, and 130 in Walton County. In 2017, the entire four-county region recorded 44 green sea turtles.
“We had a great year last year; I mean really, really great year, especially out at Perdido Key, very promising,” said Everitt. “Now, it’s just one year, but if we have another year like that and another year like that, it’s gonna mean really good things for the population of loggerheads and other sea turtles that nest here in the National Seashore.”
Sea turtle nesting season continues through the end of October.
Beach and park visitors are asked to do their part by steering clear of the sea turtle nests, which will be roped off and clearly marked with a sign. Additionally, knocking down sand castles and refilling any holes in the sand is important. This will ensure a clear path for adult turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs, as well as for the hatchlings, which need all their energy to climb out of the nests and make their way to the gulf.