For U.S. sea turtles, the year got off to a rough start with unusually cold temperatures in January that gripped the southeast from the Carolinas to Florida. Over the next few weeks, rescuers (including Sea Turtle Conservancy staff) succeeded in treating and saving the majority of distressed sea turtles that had been stunned by the cold. In Florida, about 4,000 of the 5,000 rescued turtles did survive. Just a few months after the unprecedented turtle rescue, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill evolved into the worst oil spill in U.S. history – right at the start of the sea turtle nesting season and in an area important to five species of sea turtles. As the summer unfolded and Florida’s coasts were largely spared from oil and by hurricanes (though severe storms in Mexico and Texas this year destroyed a large proportion of Kemp’s ridley nests), we began to receive reports that, despite all the threats facing turtles in the region, 2010 might be an excellent nesting year. The good reports about nesting levels in Florida and other southeastern states coincided with similar good news from Panama and Costa Rica, where STC conducts long-term monitoring of the region’s largest turtle populations.
In Florida the words “good, better and best” encapsulate this year’s nesting season for leatherbacks, loggerheads and greens. While nesting on the same beaches, the long-term nesting patterns for these three species vary widely. Characteristically, the number of females nesting each year fluctuates, but Florida’s small leatherback nesting population has continued to increase steadily over the last 20 years, and 2010 saw relatively good nesting for leatherbacks. Although loggerheads are Florida’s most abundant sea turtle, nesting has declined dramatically since 1998 when the number of females reached an all-time high. However, when nest counts for this summer were tallied, 2010 was far better than expected – in fact it was the best year for nesting loggerheads in Florida since 2002. Loggerhead nesting also showed an increase in Georgia and the Carolinas.
The story of green turtle nesting in Florida is nothing short of a major success. Just 25 years ago, statewide nesting rarely exceeded a thousand nests. For example, in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, one of the best green turtles nesting sites in the U.S., annual nesting of green turtles rarely passed a few hundred nests. Since then, Florida’s green turtle nesting population has grown exponentially, and in 2010 nesting set a new record statewide. In the 20 mile long Carr Refuge alone, there were over 4,500 green turtle nests.
Further south, in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, greens are also nesting in significant numbers, though it is too early to present final numbers. In just the northern five miles of Tortuguero Beach, which STC monitors daily, there were over 31,500 nests as of early October. At Chiriquí Beach, Panama, both leatherback and hawksbill nesting is showing an increasing trend. Nearly 6,000 leatherback nests were counted (second highest in recent times) and hawksbills had the highest nesting number on record with over 750 nests, since monitoring began in 2003.
The results we are documenting on the nesting beaches where we work demonstrate the value of long-term conservation and prove that, given the right conditions, sea turtle populations can recover. As exemplified by our sustained programs in Costa Rica, Bermuda, Panama and Florida, STC measures its commitment in decades rather than in years. To successfully recover turtle populations, protection of nesting beaches must go hand in hand with protection at sea and reducing threats from fisheries, habitat destruction, and pollution — issues on which STC focuses in the United States and abroad. While this year’s wonderful nesting results show that our collective efforts to protect sea turtles are working, our work is far from done — coastal habitats and marine habitats remain very much at risk from development, erosion, overfishing and pollution. The eminent ecologist (and STC Board member) Dr. David Ehrenfeld once wrote “with good science and good will it is possible for both people and sea turtles to use our beaches together.” With the increased turtle nesting documented this year, his words ring truer and more important than ever.