Sea Turtles in Broward County: In 2015, Many Nests, but Heat "Cooked" Eggs Before Hatching

Sea Turtles in Broward County: In 2015, Many Nests, but Heat "Cooked" Eggs Before HatchingEXPAND
Dean Croshere via Flickr Creative Commons

Update, February 24: Courtney Kiel, natural resource specialist with the county, added that "We do work with code enforcement and try to target the most problematic areas. It's challenging in Broward County because so much development has been made directly on the  beach , so there is little barrier on the beach whereas other areas may have prominent dune systems or coastal vegetation that blocks out that lighting. It is very challenging to get a handle on but I do think each municipality in the county is moving in the direction. I don't think its being ignored." She also added that the beach renourishment project provides needed sand for nesting, and may disrupt it in the short term but be necessary for the long term. 

Original story: 
Broward County on Monday announced that 2015 was the second-best year for sea turtle nests since record-keeping began in 1981. 

But that good news was tempered by an independent sea turtle advocate, Richard Whitecloud, who, through his organization Sea Turtle Oversight Protection, runs a volunteer army that monitors turtle nests throughout the night all nesting-season long. 

"It wasn't a bad year for sea turtles," Whitecloud says, "because we've seen it a lot worse... It wasn't bad, but it wasn't something to brag about either."  

Three species of turtles nest from March through October every year on Broward's 22 miles of shoreline — loggerheads (which are endangered), leatherbacks (vulnerable), and green turtles (endangered). The Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program, which is administered and funded by Broward County and carried out by Nova Southeastern University (NSU), found 3,240 nests last year.

Here is the breakdown by species:

*2,741 Loggerhead Turtle Nests
- 135 fewer than previous year
- Above five-year average (2,564 nests per season)

*463 Green Turtle Nests
- 32 fewer than record-high season in 2013
- Nearly double the five-year average (268 nests per season)

*35 Leatherback Turtle Nests (least-common nesting turtle in Broward)
- 4 fewer than previous year
- 11 more than five-year average (24 nests per year)

The numbers fell "a little short of the record year in 2012," said Derek Burkholder, PhD, a research scientist at Nova Southeastern University who runs the sea turtle program, in a news release. "The efforts of those in Broward County to heed the notices during nesting season are paying off and we're seeing more and more nests and hatchlings. It's important that we keep the momentum going to ensure these animals are here for many more years to come." 

Whitecloud, who sometimes works in conjunction and shares data with the county's turtle experts, agreed that 2015 saw above-average numbers of turtles who built nests and laid eggs. However, he said, "our hatchling success rate was down considerably — about 20 percent, which is significant. A lot of nests in the early part of the season did not produce a high volume of hatchlings because of the heat. The nests basically were cooking and not producing offspring."

Whereas 80 or 90 babies would typically come from a healthy nest, the average last year was around 53, Whitecloud says. His volunteers were able to monitor 52 percent of the nests laid last year, and 60 percent of the babies they saw hatch experienced disorientation — they wandered away from the sea rather than toward it. 

Sea-turtle hatchlings frequently mistake manmade lights for the moon, and thus head away from the ocean rather than toward it, then die. Whitecloud has been a vocal critic of Broward cities and towns for not enforcing lighting regulations that have been drawn up to protect the turtles. 

Coastal municipalities in Broward are required by the county to have their own ordinances that regulate how much and what type of light can shine on the beach during turtle nesting season. These go into effect March 1. 

The county says a team of 40 representatives from the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation program conducts beach lighting surveys at night; it then lists and tracks lighted properties by street address. "All property lights visible from the beach are documented and provided to respective code enforcement officers," the county warns on its website.  

But those departments, Whitecloud says, rarely fine or punish offenders. That's a political concession to the beachfront businesses like hotels and bars, Whitecloud alleges.

"It's all lip service," he says. If the city really wanted to, he imagines, it would come to him and say, "'Rich, we had our heads up our asses. We were being improperly advised by our attorneys to kick the can down the road because lobbyists were coming at us left and right from the hotel and tourism industries. We're cutting ties with all lobbyist corruption. Can you help us out?" That will never happen though, he predicts.

"Just pick one," he pleads. "Pick the biggest violator. Slap a big fine on one, bring their ass in court." 

With Broward trucking in sand from afar to replenish its beaches this year, Whitecloud  anticipates that in 2016, we will see a 20 to 30 percent decline in nests because the quality and slope of the sand is not right for the turtles. 

The county asks that if anyone sees turtles in distress, he contact the sea-turtle emergency line at 954-328-0580.


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