Sea turtle nesting season ends Tuesday, and it’s been a record-setting eight months on north county beaches.
“This is our best year to date since monitoring programs began,” said Dr. Justin Perrault, associate director of research at Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach. “This shows that conservation efforts that were underway 20-30 years ago are now paying off.”
The high numbers come despite heavy beach erosion this year from Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria.
North county beaches were among the worst hit, according to Palm Beach County Environmental Resources Management officials. About a third of the total of 450 feet of dry beach lost to the storms was from beaches on Singer Island and north.
Local officials figure the storms scraped about 1.4 million cubic yards of sand from Palm Beach County beaches that will cost about $40 million to replace.
LMC officials patrol the beaches most days during sea turtle nesting season from just north of Donald Ross Road to the Martin County line during the season that started March 1. They look for sea-turtle tracks leading to nests where females lay and bury their golf-ball-size eggs in about 3 feet of sand.
Loggerhead, leatherback and green sea turtle nests are documented. Yellow tape is used to mark off the nest areas, which should not be approached.
About 11 percent (about 2,060 nests) were lost to Hurricane Irma on the 10-mile of beach monitored by LMC from the northern Palm Beach County line south to the northern border of John D. MacArthur Beach State Park.
“Even with Irma’s impact, our nest numbers are still higher after the loss than our previous record year,” said Hannah Deadman, LMC public relations and community relations coordinator.
While leatherbacks, loggerheads and greens are all sea turtles, their behaviors and habitats vary. All are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act because of potential damage from commercial fishing, coastal lighting, boats and other human activities.
Leatherbacks dive deeper and mature faster than green and loggerhead sea turtles. Green turtles eat mostly sea grass and algae. Loggerheads migrate the most throughout the world. Leatherbacks are the largest and can grow to 6 feet long and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Sea turtles can live 80 years. Females begin laying eggs when they are between 20 and 40 years old.
LMC is a non-profit organization that rehabilitates and researches sea turtles. About 50 injured sea turtles, such as Amanda, are released into the Atlantic Ocean annually. About 2,000 hatchlings are released annually. The center attracts about 300,000 visitors each year, according to LMC.
The efforts to protect nesting turtles include reduced lighting on beaches, the requirement that shrimp boats release sea turtles that get entangled in their nets and public education.
Despite this year’s heavy erosion, the loss of sand is not expected to affect next year’s sea turtle nesting numbers, said Sarah Hirsch, LMC’s data manager.
“It takes 20-30 years for turtles to mature, so the reproductive loss this year from the erosion wouldn’t be realized until 20-30 years from now,” Hirsch said. “Additionally, turtles take a couple years off between nesting. So the females that come to nest next year won’t be the same females that we saw nesting this year.”
High water marks
Three records were set this year at Loggerhead Marinelife Center:
* Highest annual nest numbers: 19,088 (The previous record was 16,335)
* Most crawls: More than 51,000 (The previous record was 42,118)
* Most green turtle nests: 7,807 (The previous record was 5,443)