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SCCF offers turtle tips as season starts up

By Staff | May 7, 2019

PHOTO PROVIDED Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation volunteers Irene Nolan, Paola Wierda and Darlene Rizzo with the staked loggerhead nest on the east end of Sanibel — the islands’ first nest of the 2019 season.

With sea turtle nests starting to pop up around the islands, the public is reminded that there are steps they can take to help provide a safe beach for nesting turtles and hatchlings this season.

The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation recently reported that the first nest of the 2019 season was discovered on April 27 on the east end of Sanibel. Identified as being from loggerhead sea turtle, the nest was found by Sea Turtle Program volunteers Irene Nolan, Paola Wierda and Darlene Rizzo.

As of May 3, two more nests – also loggerheads found on Sanibel – had been recorded. One was located on the west end of island, while the other nest was found on the east end. Identified nests are screened to protect them against predation, but the holes are big enough for hatchlings to emerge.

“Our sea turtle season starts on April 15 and typically goes through October, sometimes November,” SCCF Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Kelly Sloan said.

“They start nesting in late April, and they’ll keep nesting through early August,” she added. “Hatching starts usually in late June or early July and goes through October, sometimes November.”

In 2018, SCCF recorded a total of 721 nests laid between Sanibel and Captiva – the organization monitors the beaches on both islands. There were 718 loggerhead nests, two green turtle nests, and one rare Kemp’s ridley nest. Officials reported that more than 38,000 hatchlings emerged from nests.

“We had four record-breaking seasons in a row on Sanibel,” Sloan said, noting that no records were broken in 2018. “But we were above average, so I would consider it a great season last year.”

She explained that the majority of the islands’ nests are laid by loggerheads.

“We’re also seeing increasing numbers of greens on our beaches, which is really exciting,” Sloan said, adding that not a lot is known about green sea turtles. “Their populations seems to be doing well.”

Sea turtle monitoring on Sanibel begin in the 1950s with Charles Lebuff and Caretta Research. The program was transferred in 1992 to SCCF, which has been running it and keeping the data since.

PHOTO PROVIDED Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Shorebird Program Coordinator Audrey Albrecht, center, with volunteers Carol Strange and Donna Aldrich at a loggerhead nest on the west end of Sanibel.

“That makes us one of the longest running sea turtle programs in the country,” she said.

With the help of almost 100 volunteers, the program monitors 18 miles of beach every morning between Sanibel and Captiva during nesting season.

“We’re looking for new activity since sea turtles lay their eggs at night,” Sloan said.

When a nest is found, it is documented then screened to discourage predation.

“We also check every nest every day for any negative impacts,” she said, citing predation, wash-overs from the tide and fire ant invasions. “Once hatching starts, we’re looking for signs of emergence.”

“What basically looks like little miniature versions of the adults,” Sloan added.

With staff and volunteers doing what they can, there are also steps people can take to assist.

All sea turtles species are listed and protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“There are things every single person can do when they’re at the beach to help sea turtle conservation,” she said.

One big action is tied to lights. Sloan explained that people should shield and turn off lights near the beach, including closing curtains and turning off exterior and interior lights. Never take a flash photo of a sea turtle, and cover all flashlights with an approved sea turtle-friendly filter. If you see a sea turtle, turn the flashlight off immediately.

People should also take all beach furniture, tents and umbrellas off the beach with them when they leave, and any holes dug in the sand while spending time on the beach should be filled back in.

“Sea turtles can’t go in reverse,” she said. “So they just get trapped.”

Other helpful tips include:

– Do not approach or disturb nesting turtles.

– Pick up trash on the beach, especially plastic.

– Honor the pet leash law.

Following last year’s water quality crisis, SCCF has a permit to study how red tide affects nesting turtles this season. Sloan explained that while red tide has dissipated, the toxin can remain in the food chain for up to a year. SCCF staffers will take small blood samples from adult females once they have finished nesting, as well as from hatchlings, to search for evidence of brevetoxin in their systems.

“It was a devastating season for sea turtles and all marine life,” she said of the red tide.

According to Sloan, there were a total of 1,296 stranded – sick, injured or dead – sea turtles that washed up on the shores of the seven most impacted counties. On the islands, a total of 254 turtles – 206 dead and 48 sick or injured – were recorded. The state did not attribute all of them to red tide.

She noted that SCCF is still analyzing the results of the samples it collected.

“But, almost every single dead turtle tested positive for brevetoxin exposure,” Sloan said.

Another research project for SCCF this season will focus on green sea turtles.

In 2017, it collaborated with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida to satellite tag greens and track them in an effort to learn more about the species. Between SCCF on the islands and the conservancy on Keewaydin in Naples, the two tagged seven nesting adult females before they returned to the ocean.

“We always wait until they’ve finished nesting before we do anything,” she said of any research.

Sloan explained that greens nest every other year.

“So we expect 2019 is be another big year for nesting,” she said.

As for the data collected so far from the initial seven, Sloan explained that they tracked the turtles down to the Marquesas Keys near Key West for forging and an unestablished area of the Florida Bay.

“That could be new important habitat for green sea turtles that we did not know about before,” she said.

Sloan added that turtles lay three to five nests per season, not one, and loggerheads stay close by.

“But the greens were shown traveling down to the Florida Bay and all the way back up,” she said of the time between laying each nest. “But they don’t go far offshore, they tend to hug the coastline.”

New this season, SCCF will launch live tracking of the turtles.

New tagged greens will be added to www.ocearch.org, a well-known website for tracking sharks, whales and more. The original seven females tagged in 2017 will also be added to the website.

Anyone with questions or concerns about nesting or injured turtles can contact the SCCF Sea Turtle Hotline at 978-728-3663 (978-SAVE-ONE). For more about the program, visit www.sccf.org.