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Island sea turtle volunteers sing finale on high note

By Mark Young, Islander Reporter

Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring executive director Suzi Fox conducts a hatched egg count on the final nest of a record-breaking sea turtle season. Islander Photo: Mark Young

It’s almost as if the sea turtle population in the Gulf of Mexico is singing its finale for a long, successful concert season.

While sea turtle nesting season doesn’t officially end until Oct. 31, the final recorded nest of the 2013 season hatched and was excavated the morning of Oct. 22 following an Oct. 20 hatching.

The nest was located at the end of Oak Avenue in Anna Maria and the turtle hatching marks the conclusion of what Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring executive director Suzi Fox called “The biggest, best and busiest season in our history.”

Virtually every record fell this year. In 2012, the prior record was shattered with 362 nests, while AMITW recorded 370 nests this year. More than 12,000 hatchlings made it to the Gulf of Mexico during the 2012 season, but Tropical Storm Debby is blamed for approximately 100 lost nests.

At an average of 80 eggs per nest, an estimated 8,000 hatchlings were subsequently lost to the storm.

Mother Nature gave the sea turtles good weather this year and the result was a record-breaking number of hatchlings with 23,234 sea turtles scampering to open water, almost doubling last year’s record.

AMITW also recorded a record number of false crawls this year with 360.

The 2012 season caught AMITW and other turtle watch groups across the coastal counties of Florida off guard, but back-to-back booming seasons has set expectations high for sea turtle conservation.

Fox said it is too soon and not enough data available to make any conclusions as to the increased number of nesting turtles, but the consensus is that education, dark beaches, public involvement and responsible fishing practices are key to the sea turtle success story.

A beach renourishment project is expected to take place late this year from the Manatee Public Beach in Holmes Beach south to Coquina Beach in Bradenton Beach, but Fox said she isn’t concerned about renourishment having an impact on the 2014 season, which begins May 1.

“We are still preparing for another busy year,” she said. “Everyone says beach renourishment keeps nesting down, but we saw a different story in 1997 when Coquina Beach was renourished and we had more nests.”

Fox said she is concerned about what renourishment will do for disorientation events when hatchlings emerge from the nest seeking the twinkle of stars and the reflection of the moon on the Gulf of Mexico for guidance to the water.

“Sky glow is becoming an issue on the island,” she said. “We had several disorientations as far as Section 3 — from 68th Street in Holmes Beach to Pine Avenue in Anna Maria — this year, where hatchlings took off toward the glow of the lights in Bradenton Beach.”

Fox said with renourishment, the beach is expected to be wider and higher, and she is concerned that the sky glow issue will become more prevalent.

She is bringing in an expert on the issue before next season to review any potential problem and possibly make a presentation to island officials.

While thoughts already turn to next season, this season concluded on a high note.

Fox pulled 80 eggs from the hatched nest — 56 of them hatched, while 24 were deemed to be infertile.

She said it’s not uncommon for the late nests to have very few hatchlings. A recently excavated nest had nothing but infertile eggs, Fox said.

She said the females need to purge their remaining eggs, “so to have 56 hatchlings out of the last nest is great.”

While AMITW will close the record books on 2013, Fox said sea turtle season doesn’t end until Oct. 31 and cautions people to be wary of the possibility that one or two more unrecorded nests may still be on the beach.

And, while sea turtle season ends, AMITW is gearing up to bring its full attention on its other obligation: shorebird monitoring.

Fox said the first round of shorebird nesting should begin within a couple of weeks and monthly bird counts will begin soon.

“We are going to monitor the birds this year much like we do the turtles,” said Fox. “We are using the same sections we use for turtles and we will have our volunteers walk the sections in the same way.”

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