After hurricane, fate of sea turtle nests uncertain on Florida coast

ALLIGATOR POINT, Fla. (Reuters) - When Hurricane Michael struck Florida’s Panhandle, it swept away nests of threatened baby loggerhead sea turtles hatching along its sandy beaches, already damaged by previous storms and erosion.

A sign reminds people to turn out lights as baby sea turtle typically use the light of the horizon to help guide them to the water and artificial lighting from beach homes can turn them away from the water in Franklin County near Bald Point State Park in Alligator Point, Florida, U.S., October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Devika Krishna Kumar

Scalloped sand has replaced dunes that have been washed away in Alligator Point, one of the most prolific areas for sea turtle nests in Franklin County and the state.

“Our dunes were about 8 feet (2.44 meters) high and they’re all gone,” said Allan Feifer, 61, a Franklin County emergency management official, who lives in Bald Point, which was battered by 11.5-foot (3.50-meter) storm surge.

Almost all Gulfside Beaches in Franklin County, along Florida’s “forgotten coast” of the Panhandle are dotted with sea turtle nests from May through October.

“All of this is sea turtle nesting area,” said Deb Washburn, 62, a retiree and resident of Carrabelle, a seaside town of 2,700. “All of our lights are out at night,” she said.

Baby sea turtle hatchlings typically use the light of the horizon to help guide them to the water. Artificial lighting from beach homes can turn them away from the water.

As a result, the town has specially programmed streetlights that turn on only when cars are passing by, limiting artificial lights in the area.

Loggerheads, a federally protected species, are the most common type of sea turtle living in Florida. The U.S. Southeast has a majority of the nesting grounds for loggerheads, said Catherine Eastman, Sea Turtle Program Manager at the University of Florida’s Whitney Marine Laboratory Sea Turtle Hospital. The state also has a smattering of Atlantic green sea turtles.

Sea turtles lay eggs multiple times each season, which lasts from May to October. Across the Panhandle, there are hundreds of nests, each holding about 50 to 150 eggs.

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Nest protection is a seven-day-a-week task and volunteers and staff help make sure the hatchlings make it safely to the ocean, and past natural predators on the beach.

The barrier island beaches in the Apalachicola area support some of the densest concentrations of nesting loggerhead sea turtles in northwest Florida, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

There were only seven nests left on St. George Island in Franklin County as of last week and “unless they hatched before today, they didn’t survive,” St. George Island Volunteer Turtlers said in a Facebook post last week.

The beaches of Franklin County have been monitored for sea turtle nesting activity since 1979, when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) implemented a statewide monitoring program, the Florida DEP said on its website.

After a significant increase in the number of turtles hatching and crawling to the ocean between 1990 and 1999, there has been a drop off, it said.

“The downward trend seen with hatch success began as a result of beach conditions and has continued due to tropical storms, high tides and erosion,” it added. However, last year Franklin County had 1,118 Loggerhead nests, the most in at least four years, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission said.

Hurricane Michael, which came ashore on Oct. 10, was late in the nesting season and may therefore have a lesser impact on this year’s turtle population, said Lesley Cox, 68, a green guide and Florida master naturalist.

“I do think that we had a lot of nests this year and we didn’t have any storms until now so we’ll probably have a lot of hatchlings that made it,” Cox, a resident of Carrabelle, said.

The impact due to beach erosion, though, may be more lasting, said Eastman at the Sea Turtle Hospital.

“The question is will they have sufficient habitat to nest next year,” she said. “You hope so. But it really all depends.”

Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar; Editing by Jessica Resnick-Ault and Sandra Maler