Island turtle watch tracks record season

It is now time for turtle watch volunteers to brush the sand off their feet and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring closed out another record-breaking season Oct. 31, marking the sixth straight success since 2014.

In May-October of 2019, 535 loggerhead and nine green sea turtle nests were documented on the island, compared with 534 loggerhead nests in 2018.

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Sea turtle nesting on island beaches has more than doubled since 2014, when 260 nests were spotted.

Green sea turtles, which are less common to the island than loggerheads, nest every other year, leading to this year’s spike.

However, 2019 saw the most green nests since turtle watch started keeping records in 1982.

Sea turtle nesting on island beaches has more than doubled since 2014, when 260 nests were spotted.

“Our success is a team effort,” Suzi Fox, Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring executive director, said Oct. 26. “We work with the public and with code enforcement and the changes are obvious in the numbers.”

Mature females only leave the water to nest. Hatchlings, guided by their instincts, emerge from nests and crawl to the Gulf of Mexico. Both follow the reflection of the moon and stars on the water.

Artificial lighting visible from the shoreline, can disorient sea turtles away from the Gulf, leading to exhaustion, starvation and death.

Starting in April, Fox worked with code compliance officers in Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach to attempt to fix beachfront lighting that might not be “turtle-friendly,” so that nesting or hatchling sea turtles would be less likely to be drawn away from the water.

The first nest of the season was spotted May 1 on Manatee Public Beach in Holmes Beach.

Within a month, there were more than 100 loggerhead nests on island beaches.

By July 1, there were 343 nests on the island. The first nest hatched that day, but most of the hatchlings disoriented due to visible beachfront lighting.

Turtle watch noted 59 instances of mature or hatchling sea turtles being drawn away from the Gulf by lighting visible from the shoreline — the most AMITW has ever documented.

In 2018, there were 50 disorientations.

“It’s a work in progress, but as more people come to the island, we have more work to do,” Fox said. “People must be educated and noticed by code if lights are a danger to turtles.”

Beachfront properties are required to have low, shielded exterior lighting that meets Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission standards and indoor lights must be turned off or shielded by curtains or blinds.

Turtle watch educates the public on best practices for nesting season through educational handouts and weekly informational “Turtle Talks” in season.

People also are invited to some nest excavations throughout the hatching portion of season. AMITW volunteers conduct excavations — dig into hatched nests — 72 hours after hatching to collect data that is shared with county, state and federal agencies. Turtle watch volunteers count the number of hatched and unhatched eggs, and any live hatchlings in the nest are released to the Gulf.

With the assistance of about 90 AMITW volunteers who walk the beach each morning during nesting season looking for signs of nesting or hatching, more than 27,000 hatchlings crawled from nests in the sand to the Gulf of Mexico.

In 2018, turtle watch documented 35,778 hatchlings.

Fox said she is not sure why the hatch rate was lower this year, but it could be due to younger females just starting to nest.

There were no major storms this season, but heavy summer showers and occasional high tides caused some standing water, which also might have contributed to the lower hatch rate.

Fox said, when she attends the state marine wildlife permit holder meeting in January 2020, she will speak with reps from other organizations to find out if they had similar numbers.

By Aug. 30, season had peaked and there were 533 nests on the island.

As of Oct. 31, two nests remained and were expected to have hatched by press time for The Islander.

“It has been another great year,” Fox said. “The key is to continue working together and educating people, so that we can protect the wildlife that is so sacred to our island.”