By Stacy Shelton, USFWS
National wildlife refuges are America’s promise to itself that there will always be places for wildlife in our midst.
Consider the critical importance of coastal refuges in the recovery of sea turtles. Roughly 30 percent of loggerhead sea turtle nests found in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina are laid on national wildlife refuges.
A loggerhead on Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia returns to the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo: USFWS)
In Peninsular Florida, which has the greatest number of loggerhead sea turtle nests in the United States, about one-quarter are found on national wildlife refuges. Refuges in the Florida Panhandle and Alabama are also important nesting areas for loggerheads that are part of a small, but genetically different, population in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Refuges in U.S. territories in the Caribbean provide very important nesting habitat for leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles; in Hawaii, over 90 percent of green turtle nesting occurs on refuge beaches.
In this Q&A, Sandy MacPherson, the national sea turtle coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 1998, and the Southeast sea turtle coordinator from 1994 to 1998, talks about conserving sea turtles.
What role do national wildlife refuges play?
The refuges are very important for sea turtles. They provide very important habitat that’s protected, particularly from upland development where we might see problems on other beaches with lighting. Lights can disorient sea turtles. But with refuges, we typically end up with dark beaches that are conducive for good sea turtle nesting and hatchling emergence.
As more coastal development occurs, will the refuges’ role in sea turtle nesting become even more critical?
We see a lot of cases where turtles still nest on beaches we would think aren’t as attractive because of human usage or erosion or lighting. As our beaches see the effects of sea level rise and landward migration [of the beach] is not possible because of construction, I think our nesting beaches on refuges will become more important because they have room to migrate and change.
This was a banner year for loggerhead sea turtle nesting on national wildlife refuges, particularly in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. What do you make of it?
Up until about four to five years ago, the numbers of loggerhead nests being laid in the Southeast was on a very, very rapid decline. Now, we’re cautiously optimistic because we’ve seen an upswing in the numbers. But we really don’t know what this means in terms of the long-term situation for loggerheads.
A hatchling takes to the beach on Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. (Photo: Paul Tritak/USFWS)
If you had to pick the greatest threats to sea turtles in the next 50 years, what would they be?
At this point, commercial fishing; in the long-term, absolutely sea level rise. A lot of work has been done to try to address commercial fishing operations, but there are still numerous fisheries not yet implementing measures to reduce or minimize take of turtles.
Sandy MacPherson is the national sea turtle coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service