Federally threatened loggerhead sea turtles have reached an important milestone this year on Georgia’s coast – over 3,000 nests were laid along 14 barrier island beaches. This marks the highest number of nests recorded in the state in the 30+ years that our beaches have been monitored and a more than 40% increase from the previous record set last year.
Georgia is noted with having one of the oldest sea turtle conservation programs in the world, starting with the Little Cumberland Island project, in 1964. Today the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) coordinates the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative, a group of state, federal and private biologists and conservationists that monitor Georgia’s beaches for sea turtle nests. Loggerhead sea turtle nesting season starts in May when the first females crawl onto Georgia’s beaches to lay their nests in the dunes, and the last nests typically hatch in October. Female turtles typically lay their nests at night, and may lay 2-3 nests per season with around 70-140 eggs in each nest.
Cooperative members move quickly to protect newly laid nests from predators like raccoons, coyotes, and feral hogs by covering the nests with protective screens. When nests have been laid below the high tide line and face the risk of being washed over, they are moved to higher ground to increase the likelihood of hatching. Once the nests have hatched, 50-70 days after they are laid, nests are excavated to determine how many eggs were laid and how many hatched. It is estimated that only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings will survive to adulthood.
In addition to trained biologists, several nesting programs on Georgia’s barrier islands engage volunteers, citizen scientists, student interns, and teachers as part of their seasonal monitoring. Some of the programs, particularly those on more developed islands, take education a step further and offer guided walks and educational programs aimed at increasing awareness of the importance of sea turtle conservation among coastal residents and visitors.
While the Cooperative has placed a priority on protecting sea turtle nests over the last 30+ years, there has also been significant push to reduce the number of sea turtles stranded in shrimp trawl nets. Shrimping season in Georgia coincides with sea turtle nesting season. Historically, shrimpers inadvertently captured and drowned turtles in their nets as they trawled for shrimp. In the mid-1980s, Sinkey Boone, a Georgia shrimper from Darien, developed a “Turtle Excluder Device” (TED) that frees turtles from shrimp nets while shrimpers continue to trawl. This device has significantly reduced the number of drowned sea turtles in areas where shrimping is prevalent. The World Wildlife Fund later recognized Boone with a national conservation award for his invention.
2016 will be remembered as a significant milestone in the conservation of sea turtles in Georgia. While it will take several more years of similar if not greater numbers of successful sea turtle nests to deem the population recovered, conservationists throughout the region are celebrating a very encouraging trend and the long term investment that made it possible. 30+ years of conservation work – with help from conservation philanthropy – is paying off!
PHOTO BY KRIS WILLIAMS
Links to sea turtle conservation work in coastal GA, including opportunities to fund:
- Caretta Research Project: www.carettaresearchproject.org
- Georgia Sea Turtle Center: gstc.jekyllisland.com
- Tybee Island Marine Science Center: www.tybeemarinescience.org/conservation
- To support sea turtle work by the Nongame Conservation Section of the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, visit T.E.R.N., The Environmental Resources Network: tern.homestead.com
- St. Catherines Island Sea Turtle Program