Red tide, Irma, artificial lighting hurt sea turtle nesting season in Collier County

Adam Friedman
Naples Daily News

Turning off lights, identifying nests and monitoring beaches are just some of the things Collier County does to protect the endangered sea turtle population during its nesting season.

But with the red tide bloom still persistent and last year’s devastating hurricane season, there is only so much the county can do.

Empty shells from hatched sea turtles sit in piles of 10 as Maura Kraus and Maddy Kenton count them while excavating a nest Saturday, July 15, 2017, along the beach in downtown Naples. Kraus excavates a nest 72 hours after the turtles have hatched.

Since the beginning of the year, 79 sea turtles have been found dead on Collier’s shores.

“I’m sure red tide has had some effect on the nesting,” said Maura Kraus, sea turtle expert for Collier County. “Before the season a lot of the large loggerhead turtles were washing up stranded on shore, and if each turtle nests four times a year, that could significantly reduce overall nest totals.”

When sea turtles emerge to nest, they can breathe in the red tide toxin, which can cause them to get sick and make it harder for them to protect themselves from predators. 

The red tide was particularly bad last week. On July 23 and 24, four dead sea turtles were found on Collier beaches, according to Kraus.

This year over 1,400 turtle nests have been laid on Collier County beaches, and 101 nests have hatched.

Turtle Time volunteers check the front flipper of a hatchling they saved at Bonita Beach.

Those numbers are on track to pass last year’s totals. But 2017’s nesting season was cut short by Hurricane Irma, which washed away 196 nests. 

This year's washed-away data isn't available yet, Collier County doesn't compile lost nest numbers until the end of nesting season.

More:State officials investigating turtle deaths in Florida

More:World's largest sea turtle could come off 'endangered' list

'One of the hardest years in terms of enforcement.'

For the fifth straight year, the number of disoriented baby sea turtles reached double digits in Collier County.

“A huge part of the disorientations this year are actually caused by Irma,” said Roger Jacobsen, beach monitor for the city of Naples. “There used to be a landscape buffer that covered up some of the lights, but that, along with some of the turtle-safe lighting, was destroyed.”

Half of the disoriented baby sea turtles were on Naples beaches.

Baby sea turtles are supposed to follow the moon’s light toward the Gulf. But light pollution from homes and condos on the beach has caused the turtles to become disoriented, making them crawl away from the beach and preventing them from getting the food and water they need to survive.

In an effort to mitigate that effect, Collier County mandates that any place that uses outdoor lighting within 300 feet of the Gulf must put in low-intensity lighting with reflective covers so it can’t be seen from the beaches.

“If you own a home on the beach, you know the rules,” Kraus said. “We’ve been working on informing people for 30 years.”

Maura Kraus and Maddy Kenton count the hatched eggs while excavating a nest on Saturday, July 15, 2017, along the beach in downtown Naples.

At night, homes on the beach are supposed to close their blinds and turn off all outdoor lighting that faces the water. But a lot of the beach homes are rented out in the summer, which means more tourists and more uninformed people on the beaches at night.

“It’s been one of the hardest years,” Jacobsen said. “We aren’t out there every night, but when we are, there are always multiple issues with people using their phone camera to walk at night or look at the nest.”

Any kind of unnatural light can affect the already slim chances of survival sea turtles have — only 1 in 1,000 baby turtles makes it to adulthood.