Sea turtle hatchlings will get a chance for survival on Florida’s east coast
Sea turtle hatchlings face great challenges when they crawl to the water, swim offshore, and begin their lives in the ocean. They face many dangerous obstacles, both on the beach and in the water – some natural, some because of man – that make survival difficult.
This summer, the hatchlings of these threatened and endangered species emerging from nests on Northwest Florida beaches would face an additional, likely insurmountable obstacle in the form of large amounts of oil from the continuing Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Oil products could cause problems for hatchlings on the beach, but the highest degree of danger lies in the ocean currents that determine where these young sea turtles go. They are the same currents that determine where the floating oil goes, which would constantly bring the young turtles to the floating oil.
That’s why a group of sea turtle experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) began planning a way to prevent this impending loss of newly hatched sea turtles when it was clear that oil would continue to pour into the Gulf throughout the sea turtle nesting season.
“We had to determine the best course of action given the extraordinary circumstances of this oil spill,” said Dr. Robbin Trindell, the FWC’s sea turtle management coordinator. “If we left the hatchlings to fend for themselves, they would face a certain death. While the system we’ve devised will give them at least some chance for survival, it is important to note that relocating nests at any time is also very risky and would be considered only during an unprecedented disaster such as the Deepwater Horizon incident.”
The plan involves moving sea turtle eggs that are within a week of hatching from the beaches in Northwest Florida to a facility on the central-east coast of Florida. Once the eggs have been removed, they will be placed carefully in coolers with dampened sand from the nest, transported in a specially designed, temperature-controlled and air-cushioned truck to the east coast, somewhere near Cape Canaveral, and held under carefully monitored conditions until the hatchlings begin emerging from the eggs.
The eggs will hatch at this facility, and the hatchlings will be released on a nearby beach. This type of action is a last resort in Florida, where every effort is made to leave sea turtle nests in place so that hatchlings emerge naturally and depart from the beach where their mother nested.
Sea turtle eggs can be moved as they near their hatching date, but some eggs may still be lost because of the movement.
“We won’t attempt to move the eggs until they have incubated at least 49 days,” Trindell said. “The permitted individuals who check beaches every morning for sea turtle nesting activity have been diligent in marking the nests and keeping data on when the nests were laid so we have accurate dates for when the eggs can be moved.”
Moving these eggs also brings concerns about disrupting the poorly understood mechanisms that guide a female sea turtle back to the beach where she hatched. It is possible these hatchlings would eventually return to Northwest Florida to nest. However, it is also possible that releasing the hatchlings on the east coast of Florida will result in those turtles returning to the east coast or going to some other area to nest.
About 700 sea turtle nests are laid in Northwest Florida each year, and each nest typically contains 100-120 eggs. Loggerhead sea turtles are the most common species to nest in this part of Florida, but some nests of Kemp’s ridleys and green turtles also are expected. Many of the nests will be moved by late July, but the process could continue until October, depending on when nests are laid.
Implementation of this plan will require a huge effort by all the volunteers, the FWC and its partners, but everyone involved is determined to give these sea turtles a chance to make it to clean waters, where they can continue their life cycle.
“It is a phenomenal partnership, with everyone working toward one goal, and that is to help our wildlife survive this disaster,” Trindell said. “There are folks out on the beaches cleaning and searching for sea turtle nests all night long now, and none of what we are about to undertake could occur without those partnerships.”
At this time, there are no plans to relocate any eggs from other Gulf beaches in Florida. However, the FWC is coordinating with permit holders to mark turtle nests all along the Gulf Coast and will closely monitor the situation.
For more information on the plan to relocate Northwest Florida sea turtle eggs, go to www.fws.gov/northflorida. To report sightings of oiled wildlife, call 866-557-1401. For more information on sea turtle conservation, visit MyFWC.com/SeaTurtle. For information on volunteering to aid in the recovery effort, call 866-448-5816. For other information on the oil spill, go to MyFWC.com/OilSpill.