Escambia County sea turtle nesting numbers solid, despite red tide and new hands-off policy
Escambia County beaches reported solid 2018 turtle nesting numbers, despite red tide algae blooms elsewhere in the state and changes in nest monitoring procedures.
But Santa Rosa County officials were disappointed in the 2018 season, which brought only eight nests to that county’s seven miles of beach, according to statewide turtle nesting data recently released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Longtime Navarre Beach turtle monitor Cathy Holmes said 2018 was a disappointing year for nesting on the four miles of beach she watches. Only three turtles laid nests on the beach, compared to 19 in 2017.
« It was the lowest year we’ve ever had, » said Holmes, who speculated a large number of beach visitors might have kept nesting turtles away.
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Escambia County’s 37 miles of beach, stretching from Perdido Key in the west to the Santa Rosa County line in the east, had a total of 96 nests during the 2018 season, according to state data.
All of the nests recorded last year in both Santa Rosa and Escambia counties belonged to loggerhead sea turtles.
Kelly Irick, a biologist for Gulf Islands National Seashore, said the park was pleased with the overall results of the 2018 nesting season.
« Gulf Islands had a better-than-average 2018 for turtle nesting, » she said. The park accounted for 59 of the region’s nests.
Biologists say nest numbers can wildly fluctuate from year to year. In 2017, Escambia County reported 209 nests on local beaches. Irick said she didn’t know why that number was so much higher than the 96 nests reported in 2018. But, she said, the 2018 nesting numbers were in line with most other previous years.
Throughout Florida, more than 91,000 loggerhead nests were found in 2018. The number was down by about 5,000 from 2017.
Green sea turtles nest every other year, and only 4,500 were reported in the state in 2018, compared to 53,000 reported in 2017. Florida is the only U.S. state where leatherback turtles regularly nest, and 949 of those nests were reported in 2018, up from 663 in 2017.
Michelle Kerr, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said biologists do not know exactly what drives year-to-year fluctuations in turtle nesting numbers.
« Statewide, the numbers are similar to what they were in 2014, ’15 and ’17 so overall (2018) was considered a good year, » she said.
Kerr said issues with toxic red tide algae blooms in parts of south Florida do not appear to have had a major impact on nesting. Kerr said the bigger impact of the algae blooms on turtles was adult turtles that got sick or stranded because of the blooms. Kerr said the FWC tracked 589 adult turtles that became sick or stranded because of the blooms.
In past years, the Florida Fish and Wildlife has allowed monitors to watch turtle nests at night and help hatchlings make their way to the Gulf. The agency has recently changed its policy to reduce hatchlings’ contact with humans.
Despite the change, Irick, of Gulf Islands National Seashore, said thousands of tiny turtles successfully made their way from the the parks beaches to the Gulf.
The best way for the public to help the tiny hatchlings is by eliminating artificial lighting on or near the beach, picking up beach liter and filling in large holes at the end of a day on the beach, she said.
« Be aware of light in general on the beach, especially flashlights, during nesting season, » she said.
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The Escambia County Commission on Thursday will address beach lighting, when it considers approving a $150,000 grant to allow beach property owners to change out old fixtures with turtle friendly lights.
The project is part of Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation funding given to the agency as a result of the massive 2010 BP oil spill.
Melissa Nelson Gabriel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-426-1431.