Keeping an eye on sea turtle nests
Collier County is seeing a decline in ...
COLLIER COUNTY — At 6:30 a.m., the sand on Vanderbilt Beach is void of yesterday’s footprints and sand castles as the sun rises over downtown Naples to the south.
Only the tracks of an ATV run in a straight line down the beach as Markus Hennig, an environmental specialist for Collier County Parks and Recreation, services the 60 sea turtle nests lining the coast of the beach.
Hennig patrols a portion of the 23.7 miles of beach the Collier sea turtle protection program oversees. He spends every morning during nesting season tracking the progress of the nests looking for signs of tampering by humans and wildlife, ensuring that the turtle hatchlings have the highest possible chance of survival.
But Hennig and the sea turtle protection program may not be able to stop Collier County’s most common sea turtle from being listed as an endangered species, and soon. Loggerhead turtles are the only sea turtle native to the U.S. listed as threatened on the endangered species list. All others are listed as endangered, but nesting trends don’t look promising for loggerheads.
“They are in the process of upgrading the loggerhead to endangered,” said Maura Kraus, Collier County sea turtle protection program coordinator. “It hasn’t happened yet, but it will.”
The past 10 years have seen a dramatic decline in turtle nests in Collier County, and with no signs of recovery, the annual numbers will likely continue to drop, according to employees of the turtle protection program.
In 1998, 1,098 sea turtle nests were reported in Collier County between May 1 and Oct. 31, Florida’s sea turtle nesting season, according to reports from the sea turtle protection program. The report shows 741 nests were reported in 2008, including nests counted in the Ten Thousand Islands, which were not included in the 1998 records.
So far, the 2009 season is showing no improvement with 550 nests reported as of Aug. 3, including 43 nests in the Ten Thousand Islands. And with August marking the slowing of nesting season, officials said this year won’t bring the nesting increase they were hoping for.
The loggerhead is not the only sea turtle nesting on the shores of Southwest Florida this year. A green turtle nest was found on Keewaydin Island and in the Ten Thousand Islands, which Kraus said the area can expect to see again in 2011 since they are consistent and will nest every other year.
Lee County discovered a rare leatherback nest on Sanibel Island.
Kraus said there is an increase in sightings of sea turtles on Florida’s coast with the exception of the loggerhead’s. Species such as the green and leatherback turtles are actually increasing over the past few years, but Loggerhead’s are not following suit.
Back on Vanderbilt Beach, Hennig reaches a site where hatchlings have recently emerged. He removes the stakes and caution tape from the site preparing to excavate the nest.
He digs his hands into the sand and shovels it aside to find a pear-shaped hole 20 inches deep containing 101 egg shells and five unhatched eggs.
For every 1,000 eggs only one turtle will make it to adulthood, Hennig said.
“With 60 nests on the beach and about 100 eggs per nest I would expect to see about six turtles make it to adulthood,” Hennig said. “And that’s including males so that only leaves a couple of females to come back and reproduce.”
This low survival rate is due to many factors including turtles being snagged by fishing nets and traps, large numbers of underwater predators and disorientation by land lights.
Collier County has replaced lights along the coast to help reduce the emissions and reflections in the sand.
Kraus said a light on the pier has recently been removed and has already created new nesting sites along the beach near the Naples Pier.
“We’ve never had nests there before,” Kraus said. “This just proves the effect that the lights have on nesting.”
Hennig said the biggest problems he sees on Vanderbilt Beach are hungry raccoons and high tides. Hennig said tides can be damaging to nests located too close to the water. This year, Hennig saw 13 nests destroyed on June 24 because of a high tide.
With so many factors working against them the sea turtle protection program is working harder than ever to protect sea turtle nests along the coast.
But laws can only do so much, Kraus said, and the demise of the loggerhead population seems inevitable.