The loggerhead sea turtle nesting season in Georgia has started on time and, as the last two years, on Cumberland Island.
Wildlife biologist Doug Hoffman of the National Park Service confirmed the state’s first loggerhead nest of 2016 at Cumberland Tuesday. The Georgia Conservancy’s Laura Buckmaster, who manages the organization’s Cumberland Trail Restoration Project, spotted the turtle tracks, called a “crawl,” that morning. The most southern barrier island in Georgia also had the first nest in 2014 and 2015.
Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Mark Dodd of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said loggerhead nesting usually begins in early May and hits full stride – or crawl – by June.
These massive reptiles, the state’s primary marine turtle and a federally threatened species, crawl ashore on barrier island beaches, dig a hole at the base of the dunes and lay their eggs, usually at night.
The Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative, a DNR-coordinated network of about 200 volunteers, researchers and agency employees, patrols Georgia’s barrier island beaches daily during nesting season. Working under a federal permit, members mark, monitor and protect sea turtle nests.
The cooperative documented a record 2,333 nests last year. At least 2,319 were laid by loggerheads, with the remainder allocated to green, leatherback and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and a handful of “unknowns.” Nesting previously peaked at 2,289 loggerhead nests in 2013.
Although the total dipped to 1,201 in 2014, DNR analysis shows the highs weren’t an anomaly. Statistically, loggerhead nesting is increasing about 3 percent a year in Georgia. Nesting in Florida and the Carolinas is also trending upward. The recovery goal, set in a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries plan, is 2 percent a year for 50 years, resulting in 2,800 nests a year, a mark Georgia could reach by about 2020.
Dodd, who works for DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, predicts another strong showing this summer. Though annual levels fluctuate, “We usually have a low year and two medium to high years,” he said. “We had a low year in 2014. So we’re expecting a good year,” following last summer’s record.
Those patterns are backed by University of Georgia genetic analysis documenting the number and relatedness of loggerheads nesting on the state’s coast. As with other nests, one egg was collected from the Cumberland nest for research, less than 1 percent of the average clutch size on the island. Hoffman covered the nest with a screen to protect the eggs from coyotes and other predators.
In preparation for the nesting season, Dodd and staff have been training interns, working with volunteers and partner agencies and organizations, and teaming with the DNR Law Enforcement Division, which enforces regulations including the use of turtle excluder devices, or TEDs, in commercial shrimping.
DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section works to conserve sea turtles and other rare wildlife not legally fished for or hunted, as well as rare plants and natural habitats. The agency does this largely through public support from fundraisers, grants and contributions. Key fundraisers include sales and renewals of the eagle and hummingbird license plates.
DNR wildlife plates cost only $25 more than a standard plate to buy or renew, and up to $20 of that fee goes to help restore species such as loggerhead sea turtles.
Learn more at www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/support. Details on the Nongame Conservation Section’s work are in the agency’s annual report, www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/annualreport.
What You Can Do
All marine turtles in Georgia are protected by state and federal law. To help conserve these species:
- Minimize beachfront lighting during sea turtle nesting season. Turn off, shield or redirect lights.
- When walking the beach at night, don’t use flashlights and flash photography. They can deter turtles from coming ashore to nest or cause them to abort nesting.
- If you encounter a sea turtle on the beach, remain quiet, still and at a distance.
- Leave turtle tracks undisturbed. Researchers use them to identify the species and mark nests for protection.
- Properly dispose of your garbage. Turtles may mistake plastic bags, Styrofoam and trash floating in the water as food and die when this trash blocks their intestines.
- Remove recreational equipment such as lounge chairs and umbrellas from the beach at night. They can deter nesting attempts and interfere with the seaward journey of hatchlings.
- Protect beach vegetation that stabilizes sand and the natural coastline.
- When boating, stay alert and avoid turtles. About 28 percent of the sea turtles found dead or hurt in Georgia in 2015 suffered injuries consistent with being hit by a boat. Boaters who hit a sea turtle are urged to stand-by and immediately contact DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363).
- Also report any dead or injured sea turtles seen at 800-272-8363. (If the turtle is tagged, include the tag color and number in the report if possible.)
Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia DNR
More on the Net
- Georgia nesting updates by beach – www.seaturtle.org/nestdb/?view=3
- Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative – www.georgiawildlife.com/SeaTurtleCooperative
- Loggerhead profile – www.georgiawildlife.com/rare_species_profiles (click “Reptiles”)