Nesting season for loggerhead sea turtles is on. A clutch of eggs buried on Cumberland Island opened Georgia’s 31st year of comprehensive nest monitoring this week.
For the sixth straight year, the first nest was on Cumberland National Seashore. Georgia Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Mark Dodd said the state’s southernmost barrier island has plenty of beach-nesting habitat, a number of female loggerheads that tend to nest there and a particularly dedicated Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative member, wildlife biologist Doug Hoffman of the National Park Service.
“He’s a maniac” about checking the beach and protecting sea turtle nests, Dodd said.
But Cumberland is just the start. Loggerheads, Georgia’s leading marine turtle and a protected species, nest on all barrier islands in the state. The season will hit full stride by June.
Predicting a season total is anyone’s guess, said Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Yet he is looking for more nests than last year’s 1,735.
“After a couple of moderate years, we are expecting them to bounce back this year.”
Loggerheads are already on track for recovery in Georgia. Gains in nesting for the big turtles named for their chunky heads are averaging 3 percent a year. Nesting in Florida and the Carolinas is also increasing.
While laying 1,735 nests in 2018, loggerheads had 2,155 nests in the state in 2017 and a record 3,289 the year before, when they topped for the first time a Georgia recovery benchmark of 2,800 nests.
Continuing that rebound is the goal of Georgia’s Sea Turtle Cooperative. The 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 loggerhead nests, including species that seldom nest here, such as green and Kemp’s ridley.
The effort not only eases predation and increases the number of young that hatch, the data collected is used to assess loggerhead populations, assess threats and inform effective management. Cooperators also help with beach management. It’s an effort that has been in play on all Georgia beaches since 1989.
“The cooperative has done a tremendous amount of work,” and with a measurable impact, Dodd said. “We started out averaging about 800 nests a year and we’re now up to about 2,000.”
Like other marine turtles, loggerheads – named for their large heads – crawl ashore on barrier island beaches, dig a hole at the base of the dunes and lay their eggs, usually at night.
In preparation for the season, Dodd and staff have been training interns, working with volunteers and partner agencies and organizations, and teaming with DNR’s Law Enforcement Division. Game wardens enforce regulations including the use of turtle excluder devices, or TEDs, in commercial shrimping.
On Cumberland, Hoffman followed a process that will be repeated hundreds of times this year. An egg from the nest – 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 in Georgia. The nest was then covered with a screen to protect the eggs from predators.
The Wildlife Conservation Section works to conserve sea turtles and other 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. These tags cost only $25 more than a standard plate to buy or renew. Up to $20 of that fee goes to help wildlife.
Supporters also can donate online at gooutdoorsgeorgia.com. Click “Licenses and Permits” and log in to the secure system. (New customers will need to create an account.)
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. After ingesting trash, it can kill them by clogging their intestines.
** Remove recreational equipment such as lounge chairs and umbrellas from the beach at night. These items 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 32 percent of the sea turtles found dead or hurt in Georgia in 2018 suffered injuries consistent with being hit by a boat. Boaters who hit a sea turtle are urged to stand-by and immediately call 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.