Sea turtle nesting season is on in Georgia. National Park Service staff documented the first loggerhead nest of 2017 on Cumberland Island Monday morning, the fourth straight year that honor went to Georgia’s southernmost barrier island.
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 by June.
“It’s an annual ritual, part of spring on the coast in Georgia,” Dodd said. “Everybody’s excited.”
Part of the excitement is attributed to the recovery of loggerheads, the state’s primary marine turtle and a protected species federally listed as threatened. Georgia’s 3,289 loggerhead nests in 2016 marked a record high since comprehensive surveys began in 1989, surpassed for the first time a recovery benchmark of 2,800 nests in the state and bolstered analysis that shows nesting increasing about 3 percent a year here. Nesting in Florida and the Carolinas is also trending upward.
Like other marine turtles, loggerheads – named for their massive heads – 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 beaches daily during nesting season. Working under a federal permit, members mark, monitor and protect all nests, including species that seldom nest here, such as green and Kemp’s ridley.
Dodd expects fewer loggerhead nests this year, but still more than average. Nesting varies annually and loggerheads posted new highs the previous two seasons, including a then-record 2,335 nests in 2015.
“It’s rare to have two big years in a row and almost never three,” said Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.
In preparation for the 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.
National Park Service wildlife biologist Doug Hoffman discovered the year’s first nest on Cumberland despite high winds that can erase tracks of the female’s crawl to and from the nest. As with other nests, one egg – less than 1 percent of the average clutch size on the island – was collected for University of Georgia genetic analysis documenting the number and relatedness of loggerheads nesting on the state’s coast. The nest was then covered with a screen to protect the eggs from coyotes and other predators.
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 22 percent of the sea turtles found dead or hurt in Georgia in 2016 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
Anglers who hook or entangle a sea turtle should call DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363). Also:
Keep hands away from the turtle’s mouth and flippers.
Safely land the turtle using a net or by walking it to shore. Do not lift the turtle by the hook or by pulling on the line.
Leave the hook in place; removing it can cause more damage. (Anglers are encouraged to use non-stainless, barbless hooks when possible.)
Keep the turtle out of direct sunlight and cover it with a damp towel.
Anglers who cannot reach DNR should cut the line as short as possible and release the turtle.
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”)