Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Leatherback Nest on Sea Island is First of Sea Turtle Nesting Season

A rare and endangered leatherback sea turtle crawled ashore at Sea Island last week, signaling the start of nesting season for several federally protected species of turtles.

Jon Kent and Rob Hanft, members of the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative, found the state’s first sea turtle nest on Monday, May 4, during early morning patrols. Caretta Research Project volunteers discovered the first loggerhead nest on Wassaw Island the following Saturday night, May 9. Loggerheads are considered Georgia’s primary nesting sea turtle.

The finds mark the start of what biologists hope is a strong nesting season.

“Based on trends we have seen in recent years, we expect above-average nest totals in 2009,” said Mark Dodd, a senior Wildlife Resources Division biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “Though the numbers are difficult to project, we expect between 1,200 and 1,400 nests in Georgia this year.”

After a record high of 1,649 nests in 2008 – despite heavy storms and a busy hurricane season – members of the cooperative are anxious to start tallying up nest totals again.

Last year also marked the 20th anniversary of the cooperative, a milestone for sea turtle conservation. Coordinated by the Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section, this group of volunteers, researchers and biologists from various agencies monitors turtle nesting activities on Georgia beaches.

Loggerhead nesting numbers vary widely from year to year. The 2007 total of 689 nests, down from 1,400 in 2006, was considered a below-average year. 2006 marked the third-highest number since the DNR established comprehensive surveys in 1989, with 1,419 nests found in 1999 and 1,504 nests in 2003. Georgia has averaged about 1,045 nests a year since 1989.

Adult female loggerheads come ashore to dig nests and lay eggs from May through September. The vulnerable hatchlings scramble to the sea approximately 60 days later, swimming for the open ocean, where fewer predators lurk.

Loggerheads do not nest every year, generally returning to lay eggs – about 120 per nest – every second or third year.

The loggerhead (Caretta caretta) is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), which is more rare in Georgia, is federally listed as endangered.

Adult loggerheads can grow to more than 300 pounds. In 1994, the Georgia Loggerhead Recovery and Habitat Protection Plan was adopted to standardize nest management procedures for the state. The long-term recovery goal for the species is an average of 2,800 loggerhead nests a year over 50 years.

Threats to the survival of loggerheads include commercial fisheries, development of barrier islands, and nest depredation by coyotes, raccoons and feral hogs. The Nongame Conservation Section and conservation groups have worked to address the fishery threat by enforcing regulations requiring shrimpers to use turtle excluder devices, which allow larger animals such as turtles to escape when caught in trawls.

Organizations and agencies that team with the Nongame Conservation Section for the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative include the Caretta Research Project, Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia Sea Turtle Center, Lodge at Little St. Simons Island, Little Cumberland Island Homeowners Association, Sea Island Co., St. Catherines Island Foundation, St. Simons Island Sea Turtle Project, Tybee Island Marine Science Center, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Savannah Coastal Refuges.

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