From late spring to early fall, volunteers in St. Johns County wake up every morning and track sea turtle nests along the beaches. They record observations about nests and hatchlings and send their findings to the state.
This year, data from across the state revealed a record number of green turtle nests built on Florida beaches.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission authorizes volunteer efforts by designating a permit holder in each area of beaches with sea turtle activity.
Sandy Stam, the permit holder for two regions in St. Johns County, oversees 25 volunteers. To qualify for the program, potential volunteers attended an all-day, statewide education program to learn about sea turtle activity and how to identify nests.
In the early part of the season, they search for nests, take pictures and put stakes around the nests to mark them and identify which turtle species made the nest.
After the turtle eggs hatch, the volunteers excavate the nests to record the number of shells, dead turtles, live turtles, unfertilized eggs and other observations that provide insight into turtle nesting activity, Stam said.
This year, her group recorded 44 nests in a 3-mile area. While the loggerhead is the more common turtle in the county, Stam said her volunteers recorded about six green turtle nests in 2015.
“We didn’t have that many before, but we’re getting more,” she said.
Simona Ceriani, a research scientist for FWC, said the organization monitors numbers from 26 beaches around the state. More than 2,000 people from universities, state parks and nonprofit organizations work to collect the data.
“It’s not really the numbers, but the trends that matter,” she said.
And green turtle numbers have been on the rise. Since the program started in 1989, the green turtle population has grown exponentially with record numbers in 2011, 2013 and 2015.
Green turtles usually nest on a biannual cycle, at which point a female will lay several clutches of eggs at two-week intervals, Ceriani said.
The population for loggerhead turtles is about 52,000 and green turtles number almost 28,000. While Florida isn’t one of the green turtles’ main nesting beaches, the species has thrived in Florida since coming under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in the late 1970s, Ceriani said.
“What we are seeing is the result of a long-term conservation action that has been in place,” she said.
Gary Appelson, the policy coordinator at Sea Turtle Conservancy in Gainesville, said a couple decades ago, just a few hundred green turtles nested in Florida.
The reasons for their comeback are unclear, but some contributing factors are the Endangered Species Act and the use of turtle-excluder devices (TEDs) on all commercial shrimping fleets in the U.S. Before TEDs, fishing operations were a primary cause of green turtle mortality in the open ocean.
Florida has also worked to regulate sea turtle health, safety and habitat protection on its shores. Even re-nourishment permits to rebuild beaches have many terms and conditions to prevent harm to sea turtles.
Florida laws prevent harassing sea turtles. The state also works to reduce beachfront lighting that causes turtles to wander inward or deters them from nesting, Appelson said.
“Green turtle recovery in Florida is one of the great conservation success stories of our day,” Appelson said. “Their recovery from a very depleted population is quite remarkable.”
Sea turtles are difficult to track because they spend their lives in the oceans, and females come ashore only to nest. However, the general consensus in the scientific community is that only one in 1,000 baby sea turtles reaches maturity, Appelson said.
Sea Turtle Conservancy is the oldest marine turtle research and conservation organization in the world, according to its website. It has been in Gainesville for more than 50 years and was founded by Archie Carr, a former UF zoology professor.
The organization is the sponsor of the state’s sea turtle license plate, which is the second most popular among more than 130 specialty plates in Florida.
Ultimately, conservation depends on the people making an effort to save the sea turtles, Appelson said. As shoreline developments grow near sea turtle habitats, Sea Turtle Conservancy works to create a balance between the needs of Florida residents and sea turtle protection.
“That balance is critical, and we work very hard at maintaining that balance in Florida,” he said.