Turtle watch celebrates 2009 nesting season
PHOTO COURTESY MOTE MARINE LABORATORY
Vicki Lee went back to the sea last week. The adult female
sea turtle suffered from lethargic loggerhead syndrome when
she was rescued near Naples in April of this year. She was
rehabilitated at Mote Marine Laboratory. Mote first tagged
Vicki Lee 21 years ago when she nested on Casey Key.
So far this season, 11,415 sea turtle hatchlings have scrambled from nests on the Island’s shores into the Gulf of Mexico. The safe entry into the waters around Anna Maria Island is thanks in large part to the volunteers with Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch who’ve been on the beach every morning at dawn since May 1.
They look for signs of turtle nesting. When they find a nest, they verify that there are eggs and then mark off the nest with stakes and tape to make sure that no one inadvertently walks on the eggs buried in the sand.
It’s estimated that only one in a thousand hatchlings will make it to reproductive age, which means that roughly 11 of this year’s hatchling population will live long enough to produce their own babies.
“We’ve all worked hard this summer,” Suzi Fox, the director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch told her volunteers at a season’s end breakfast at the Smuggler’s Cove club house Sept. 26. “We have the best coordinators and the best volunteers!”
Fox noted that the number of nests was close to last year’s count.
“But our success rate – the number of eggs that actually hatched – was way up from last year,” she said. “We had an 85 percent hatch rate this year. That’s because we had no really big storms, so we didn’t have any nests wash out to sea or stand in water so long the eggs were ruined or the hatchlings drowned.”
Fox was already looking forward to next year's nesting season, which will officially begin on May 1 and run through Oct. 30.
“Next year, we’re going to have our training and sign up a little earlier,” she said. “We may begin walking in April, Everyone, including seasoned volunteers will fill out applications to walk, so that we’re sure we have all the contact information right.”
The coordinators for each of the nine sections of beach will also have new GPS systems, so that the coordinates of each nest can be accurately entered.
“Remember, our job is to collect data,” Fox said. “So we want to make sure that data is as accurate as we can make it.”
All the numbers are forwarded to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at the end of the year. The Island’s numbers are put together with numbers from the rest of the state’s coastal areas. When the state has the figures collated, it’s combined with information from all over the world.
How the numbers are used
The collected information is used to spot trends in the populations of the five species of sea turtles.
“It’s also used to keep records on what happens to sea turtle nesting on renourished beaches,” Fox said.
“When you have a renourished beach, for some reason, turtles have a tendency to nest closer to the waterline. That’s not a good thing because we lose a lot of those nests to wave action.”
One trend that is emerging from the data collected over the last several years is that the numbers of loggerhead sea turtles appear to be shrinking.
One consequence of this is that a controversial and temporary ban was placed on longline fishing in the Gulf because too many loggerheads were caught on the hooks.
Sea turtles are air breathers. When they’re caught on the hooks of the longline fishery, they can’t swim to the surface to breathe, so they drown.
Another consequence of the dwindling numbers of loggerheads is that scientists are seriously considering upgrading their status from the threatened species list to the endangered species list.
AMITW will now be the custodians of the Island shore birds.
Manatee County has hired Fox to monitor the activity and number of shore birds year 'round.
“Since we’re out on the beach every day anyway, we can easily monitor shore bird nesting and other activities,” Fox said. “That will be one benefit of starting our monitoring earlier next year.”
Outside of turtle nesting season, Fox will monitor the shore birds on her own.
All AMITW volunteers will get training on shore bird sightings and nesting with the regular turtle nesting training which will be held next spring.
Vicki Lee swims free
Paula Clark, who is with the sea turtle program at Mote Marine Laboratory, was at the breakfast last week. She told AMITW volunteers about Vicki Lee.
“Last week, we released Vicki Lee, a loggerhead that had been found stranded near Naples last April,” Clark said.
Once taken to Mote for rehabilitation, it was discovered that Vicki Lee was well known to scientists there.
“She was first tagged 21 years ago when she nested on Casey Key,” Clarke said.
Since that time, Vicki Lee was tagged four times when she nested again and again on Casey Key. She was tagged in 1988, 1992, 1999 and 2003.
The fact that the turtle was tagged in 1988 and has been seen nesting on Casey as recently as 2003 indicates the longevity of sea turtles and the need for long term studies, according to seaturtle.org.