2003 Florida Sea Turtle Nesting Trends & News from the Archie Carr Refuge

Issue 1, 2004 Articles:

* 2003 Florida Sea Turtle Nesting Trends & News from the Archie Carr Refuge
* Up Front by David Godfrey

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2003 Florida Sea Turtle Nesting Trends & News from the Archie Carr Refuge

Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) reported that 2003 was the second year in a row of record low loggerhead sea turtle nests in more than a decade.

Sea turtle nests in Florida are counted each year by a network of volunteers who monitor nesting beaches and report their findings to FWCC. During 2003, the total number of loggerhead turtle nests documented was just over 63,400 nests, up slightly from last year’s decade record low. Green turtles deposited over 2,250 nests in Florida, a record high number for the biannual low year. Leatherback sea turtles deposited over 840 nests, the second highest year on record!

Researchers at CCC and elsewhere have learned that sea turtle population trends can not be predicted by looking at nesting numbers for a single year. A lot of factors influence turtle nesting patterns in any given year (weather, temperature, ocean currents, etc.), so nesting numbers must be monitored over long periods of time in order to estimate trends.

In Florida, nesting trends are monitored by systematically counting nests on the state’s index nesting beaches utilizing a standard methodology that allows for accurate comparisons from year to year. The Florida Index Nesting Beach Survey (INBS) is administered by the FWCC and has been in operation since 1989. During the 109-day-long nesting season 396 km of nesting beach, divided into zones averaging 0.8 km in length, are monitored every day. For 2003, the INBS program monitored 64% of loggerhead nesting, 48% of green turtle nesting and 33% of leatherback nesting in Florida.

Between 1989 and 2003 the annual number of loggerhead nests has varied widely. Even though nesting in recent years has been low, the overall trend for loggerhead nesting has been stable. In contrast, nesting trends in Florida for green turtles and leatherbacks have increased over the same period. The dramatic rise in green turtle nesting has caught the attention of CCC and others in Florida working to recover this species. Most sea turtle conservationists are now cautiously optimistic that green turtles are showing signs of a recovery in Florida.

For sea turtle conservationists, a stranded turtle is a sea turtle that has washed ashore dead or injured. Just as there is a network of volunteers monitoring turtle nesting around Florida, these same volunteers participate in a coordinated Sea Turtle Stranding Network, which responds whenever someone reports a stranded turtle on the beach or in the nearshore waters. More than 1,800 dead or debilitated sea turtles were found in Florida in 2003, the greatest numbers since monitoring began in 1980! The Atlantic coast had 1,187 strandings, much higher than the average of 672.

While over half of all stranded turtles are loggerheads, there was an overall increase in the number of strandings for all species. Collisions with watercraft, disease, and drowning in fishing nets are among the most likely causes of death for loggerheads in Florida.

News from the Archie Carr Refuge

Beach Cleanup in the Carr Refuge

On Saturday, Feb 7th, 2004, CCC staff and members joined with staff and volunteers from the Brevard County Environmentally Endangered Lands Program, Keep Brevard County Beautiful, Sebastian Inlet State Park, Surfrider Foundation and Earth Day Foundation to conduct a beach cleanup within the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in South Melbourne Beach, Brevard County, Florida.

Forty participants helped clean approximately three miles of beach centered at the site of the future Barrier Island Ecosystem Center. A total of 20 cubic yards of trash was removed from the beach, much of which was lumber. About five cubic yards of the trash collected was recycled, with the majority being comprised of plastic bottles. Thanks to all who took part in cleaning this important nesting beach as the turtles are about to return.

Fewer Nests Lost to Raccoons

The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s central Atlantic coast provides nesting habitat for approximately one-fourth of all sea turtles nesting in the United States. In 2003 CCC began working with the Refuge to address the high annual loss of eggs resulting from raccoon predation.

Historical average rates of raccoon predation, thought to be between 5 and 15% of nests, is common on nesting beaches and generally poses only a mild threat to the nesting population. However, in some sections of the Refuge predation rates were between 50% and 75% in 2001. In the worst one-kilometer section, 92% of all nests were depredated, primarily by raccoons.

To put the problem in perspective, in 2001 in just a 3-kilometer section of the Refuge more nests (806) were lost to predation than the total number of nests reported to have experienced hatchling disorientations from artificial lights in the entire state of Florida! Raccoon predation is the single greatest cause of sea turtle mortality on Florida’s nesting beaches.

Research and experience has shown that most sea turtle nest predation by raccoons in any given area is accomplished by a small fraction of the overall raccoon population. In areas of high predation there are often public facilities or businesses that are not adequately securing garbage and, in some situations, people feeding and attracting raccoons.

In 2003 the Refuge implemented a Raccoon Predation Management Program aimed at reducing predation in the hot spots. CCC, and its members living in the Refuge, actively supported the Management Program. CCC also produced and locally distributed thousands of brochures alerting the public to the predation problem, informing them that it is illegal to feed raccoons in Florida, and explaining how the public can discourage raccoons by properly securing and disposing of garbage.

As a result of the Refuge’s and CCC’s activities, raccoon predation in 2003 dropped dramatically along targeted sections of beach. For the entire Refuge, in 2003 there was a 49% decrease in the number of nests depredated by raccoons, dropping from 1,103 in 2002 to 558 in 2003! Taking into account the lower nesting numbers in 2003, the rate of depredated nests dropped by 43%. With relatively minimal effort, tens of thousands of sea turtle eggs were saved in the Archie Carr Refuge.