Were Archie Carr alive today, he no doubt would be pleased. The 2012 sea turtle nesting season at the refuge bearing his name was the best in 14 years, especially for loggerheads.

“It was incredible,” says Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge manager Kristen Kneifl. “You could barely walk 10 steps without being on top of a nest.”

When Carr, a conservationist and University of Florida researcher, died in 1987, it was difficult to say if sea turtles were recovering because of protections under the Endangered Species Act and the international attention he helped bring to their plight. But two years later, nesting survey programs were established to monitor and assess sea turtle populations.

This year’s Archie Carr Refuge tally of 18,797 loggerhead turtle nests, 3,288 green nests and 50 leatherback nests is the highest since 1998 and markedly more than last year’s estimate of 18,000 for all three species.

With 20 miles of undisturbed Atlantic coastline in central Florida, the refuge includes what is considered one of the two most important loggerhead beaches in the world. The other is on Masirah Island in the Arabian Sea.

Fortunately, Archie Carr Refuge enjoys excellent and long–standing support in conserving the beach’s nesting habitat. Carr’s protégé, Llewellyn Ehrhart, and Ehrhart’s students at the University of Central Florida were monitoring these beaches for seven years in the 1980s before the state of Florida and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established an index nesting beach survey program—and before the refuge existed. While Carr articulated the threats to sea turtles, which included commercial fishing practices, coastal development and poaching, Ehrhart’s data revealed the global importance of beaches in central Florida and helped lead to the refuge’s establishment.

Today, UCF students and other researchers conduct surveys and assess hatching success during nesting season from early March to late September. They also help Archie Carr Refuge collect data on predation, disorientation caused by light and other disturbances, which are reported to proper agencies for resolution.

Cautious Optimism

Because sea turtles in North America primarily nest on beaches along the Atlantic Southeast and Gulf of Mexico coasts, similar efforts are ongoing at refuges and conservation areas across the region, where the season’s nesting numbers have been encouraging. Cape Romain Refuge in South Carolina, for example, recorded close to 1,600 loggerhead sea turtles nests this year, the highest since 1978. Other refuges reporting increased nests include Blackbeard Island and Wassaw (in Georgia), and Merritt Island, Egmont Key and Hobe Sound (in Florida).

But biologists aren’t yet saying recovery is imminent for loggerheads or other sea turtles.

“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,” says Sandy MacPherson, the Service’s national sea turtle coordinator.

Kneifl points to daunting challenges associated with climate change.

“Global warming is a definite threat to sea turtles,” she says. “The temperature of the sand determines the sex of sea turtles, which could cause an imbalance in sex ratios. In 2012, the sea turtle nesting season began one month early due to warmer water temperatures. Sea–level rise will certainly have an effect on the availability and quality of nesting beach habitat.”

Still, monitoring remains crucial in determining the efficacy of conservation measures, such as those intended to decrease fishing industry turtle bycatch or increase the likelihood that hatchlings reach the water.

Chuck Hunter, chief of the Service’s Southeast Region strategic resource management division for refuges, says, “Only through long–term monitoring will we be able to tease these and other factors apart and make adjustments as needed to conserve nesting populations on U.S. beaches and protect the entire population at sea.”

Ben Ikenson is a New Mexico–based freelance writer.