A record-breaking year came to a close recently as members of the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative met in Brunswick to wrap up the nesting season. There were 1,750 loggerhead nests recorded in 2010, topping the previous record of 1,646 from 2008. Last year’s nesting totals were much lower, with only 995 reported.
Members of the coop gave updates on various projects ranging from genetics data to predation issues. The overarching message: It was a good year for sea turtles.
For the last 22 years, Sea Turtle Cooperative members have worked to conserve Georgia’s turtles. Coordinated by the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the group of volunteers, researchers and biologists from various agencies monitors turtle nesting activities on Georgia beaches.
This season, Cumberland Island led all barrier islands with 486 confirmed nests.
“Both our nesting numbers and our hatchling success numbers were really high this year,” said Doug Hoffman, National Park Service biologist on Cumberland Island. “An average year for us is around 225 nests and we doubled that this season.”
In addition, Cumberland saw its predation rate drop from 67 percent in 2000 to less than 1 percent this year, a figure Hoffman is proud to report. “I came on board in 2000 when predation was at the highest levels it has ever been,” he said.
“… In the last 10 years we have taken measures that include live trapping of raccoons, shooting hogs and placing screens on every nest – all of which have reduced the predation rate to almost zero. The only thing we still have a problem with is ghost crabs, but you see that on every island. “
Cumberland also accounted for about half of the strandings during the nesting season, or 43 of 119 sea turtles found washed up along the coast. This may be in part due to the length of the island’s coastline, which stretches for 17 miles. Whenever a turtle washes ashore dead or comes to the beach and then dies, it is referred to as a stranding.
On Tybee Island, the nesting storyline was a little different. Tybee recorded some of the lowest numbers, with only 10 confirmed nests. However, that number was still high for a developed beach.
Tammy Smith, Sea Turtle Project coordinator for the island, was very excited that her group of volunteers not only beat local rival St Simons Island, which reported only five nests, but also made strides toward improving the habitat for turtles.
“Lighting pollution is one of our biggest issues, being a developed beach, but this year we were able to get the hotel on the south side of the island, in an area we call the strand, to turn off the lights in the top three balcony levels,” helping limit the number of disoriented turtles, Smith said.
Turtles often mistake lights on the beach for moonlight, which they use to navigate back to the water after nesting. A turtle can become disoriented and then exhausted looking for the ocean and end up on busy roads or in backyards. Lights are also a problem for hatchlings, which may head toward roads and homes rather than the water, making them more vulnerable to predators.
Tybee turtle volunteers also had their first encounter with a live adult turtle this year, one that happened to have been tagged on Wassaw Island. “That was pretty neat; most of us had never seen a turtle actually laying a nest,” Smith said.
Jekyll Island had a decent year with 140 nests. Emily Walker, night patrol team leader for the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, reported that the last nest finally hatched in early October. Overall, Jekyll’s hatchling success rate has been holding steady at 62 percent. Walker attributes that to moving fewer nests this year due to less erosion. “We only lost two nests, so that was pretty exciting,” she said.
Another development on Jekyll had to do with lights on the beach. “We were able to get a new lighting ordinance passed this year that states that if you have suitable nesting habitat on the beach you have to use appropriate lighting for turtles,” Walker explained. “Already there are hotels changing their lights and there is a good chance it contributed to us having fewer disorientations due to lighting this season.”
Despite the record year for loggerheads, biologists urged caution. Federal criteria require that the population increase by 2 percent a year for 50 years for the species to be considered recovered. The 50-year nesting goal for loggerheads in Georgia is 2,800 nests a year.
Mark Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist and Sea Turtle Program Coordinator with Georgia DNR, said the loggerhead population in Georgia “has sustained a long-term decline, but over the last five years, we have seen average or above-average nesting years.
“We are hopeful that we are seeing the beginnings of a recovery, but it is still too early to say.”
Dodd praised the Sea Turtle Cooperative. “We are very grateful to our cooperators for all their hard work,” he said. “Without them, we wouldn’t have a sea turtle conservation program in Georgia.”
Loggerheads, the most common sea turtle on Georgia’s coast, are state-listed as endangered. The nesting season runs from May through September. Daily monitoring of nesting began in 1989.
Georgians can help conserve sea turtles and other animals not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as native plants and habitats, through buying wildlife license plates that feature a bald eagle or a ruby-throated hummingbird. They can also donate to the Give Wildlife a Chance state income tax checkoff, or directly to DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section. These programs are vital to the Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state funds.
Visit www.georgiawildlife.com for more information, or call Nongame Conservation Section offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).