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A beach covered in sea turtle eggs and other debris washed ashore from Hurricane Dorian
Information icon Debris and sea turtle eggs washed up by Hurricane Dorian at Archie Carr NWR. Photo by Erin Seney, UCF Marine Turtle Research Group.

Dorian report: Sea-turtle nest losses could have been worse

Hurricane Dorian obliterated hundreds of sea-turtle nests at National Wildlife Refuges as it clawed north along the Atlantic coast earlier this month, officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) said.

But it could have been much worse. The storm, wildlife refuge staff noted, had dissipated as it neared the fragile, sandy shores where turtles lay eggs. It obliterated some nests, but left others intact.

A heavily eroded sand dune along the ocean with an exposed, crumpled sea turtle egg that looks like a smashed ping-pong ball
Eroded sand dunes and a lost sea turtle egg at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Erin Seney, UCF Marine Turtle Research Group.

In addition, some hatchlings had emerged from their shells and made it to the surf before the storm bowled past. Others have yet to hatch.

No one is sure yet how many nests were washed away when the storm passed Florida’s east coast, said Jeremy Edwardson, who manages Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, with almost 21 miles of Atlantic shoreline, hosts more turtle nests than anywhere in the United States.

Edwardson was not optimistic for nests not located in dunes, away from higher waters. “Initial reports indicate significant impacts to the nests that were on the beach,” he said.

Those nests, said Edwardson, were victims of bad timing: Tides were already high when Dorian’s winds pushed waves even higher.

But the losses don’t signal a biological tragedy. As of August, Archie Carr workers and volunteers had counted nearly 30,000 nests — a combination of leatherback, loggerhead and green sea turtles nests. Each species is listed as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The refuge also counted one nest of the most imperiled sea turtle of all — Kemp’s ridley.

An eroded sand dune along the Atlantic Ocean with failed sea turtle eggs strewn about
Lost sea turtle eggs and sand dunes at Archie Carr NWR. Photo by Erin Seney, UCF Marine Turtle Research Group.

Leatherback turtles traditionally begin nesting on the Refuge in late March and continue through July. Loggerheads come ashore to lay eggs beginning in April; by September, they’re finished. Green sea turtles arrive in June and continue laying into November.

It takes about two months for hatchlings to emerge from their shells and head to the water, meaning a portion of this season’s hatchlings had emerged from nests when Dorian came ashore.

Officials at Nathaniel P. Reed Hobe Sound NWR were still assessing storm damage to nests, said Christine Eastwick, the Refuge’s manager. The Refuge, with 3.5 miles of beach, so far this year has been the site of more than 4,000 nests.

It is uncertain exactly how many sea turtle nests the storm took out, she said. Researchers had marked 80 nests — a small percentage of the total — to track hatchlings’ progress. After the storm, they counted six.

“There were many more unmarked nests on the beach before the storm that most likely had the same fate” as most of the marked nests, she said. But the findings weren’t all dismal. All the leatherback nests had already hatched when Dorian swept past. An estimated 81% of loggerhead nests had hatched by then, too. Nearly half the green turtle nests had hatched.

Searchers probing the beach after the storm, said Eastwick, made an encouraging discovery: two new green turtle nests.

“Green sea turtles are having a record-breaking year with over 2,100 nests laid on the Refuge beach,” she said.

Merritt Island NWR lost an estimated 700 nests — about half the total located along the Refuge’s six-mile stretch of coastline.

Green sea turtle nests bore the brunt of the damage, with about 500 lost, said Layne Hamilton, the Refuge’s manager. Loggerhead losses completed the tally — 200 nests, gone.

In Georgia, where Blackbeard Island and Wassaw National Wildlife Refuges comprise more than 15 miles of shoreline, the storm washed away more than 50 nests. Despite the losses, both Refuges report banner seasons — inventories showed 537 nests at Blackbeard Island and 480 at Wassaw.

At North Carolina’s Pea Island, biologists kept a wary eye on 40 nests as the storm approached. After Dorian’s passage, they counted 16 — half of those damaged as high waters removed signs and stakes used to mark nesting sites.

Officials may learn more as the nesting season progresses, said Rebekah Martin, project leader for the North Carolina Coastal NWR Complex. Pea Island is part of that complex.

“Unfortunately, at this point we don’t have much in the way of impacts that we can substantiate and may not have much additional information until we’re closer to the end of nesting season,” she said.

Puerto Rican Refuges, farther south, reported fewer losses. The U.S. territory, pummeled two years ago by back-to-back hurricanes, largely escaped Dorian.

At Vieques, which is part of Caribbean Islands NWR, biologists estimated that 20% to 40% of green sea turtles nests were lost along the Refuge’s north shore. The losses on the south shore were minimal — three nests destroyed.

“We are grateful, here, that we were blessed and that it was not worse,” said Mike Barandiaran, the complex’s manager.

Officials also urge the public not to disturb sea turtle eggs or hatchlings. For more information on what to do when encountering injured sea turtles or other wildlife, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s 24-hour Wildlife Alert Hotline at (888) 404-3922 (FWCC); #FWC on a cell phone; or send an email to Tip@MyFWC.com.

Contact

Mark Davis, public affairs specialist
mark_r_davis@fws.gov, (404) 679-7291

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