Access and Park Issues
column: Where is the truth on sea turtle nesting success?
the 2008 sea turtle nesting season, Southern Environmental Law Center
(SELC), the National Audubon Society, and Defenders of Wildlife (DOW)
first started claiming that the consent decree had improved sea turtle
nesting at Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area (CHNSRA).
I got upset because I had naively expected the whole truth and nothing
but the truth rather than propaganda from these presumed reputable
Unfortunately, even after they were told that sea turtle nesting in
2008 was at record levels throughout North Carolina (highest since
2000), they continued their spin on how the consent decree improved
nesting at CHNSRA.
It turns out that not only was the 2008 sea turtle nesting activity in
North Carolina at record levels, but in 2008 South Carolina had its
best year since 2000, Georgia loggerhead turtles also had their best
year since 2000, and Florida had its best year since 2002.
All of this information was available to these three groups, and they
did not modify their misleading spin.
Now in their press release of May 12, 2010, regarding their comment on
the Park Service’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement on off-road
vehicle rulemaking on the seashore, these groups again claim that “The
last two years had record numbers of turtle nests.”
This implies –again – that the consent decree, which was implemented on
May 1, 2008, to settle a lawsuit by the environmental groups against
the Park Service, is responsible for the increase in sea turtle nesting
at Cape Hatteras.
Here are the facts:
2007 (a full year) under the Interim Plan, CHNSRA had 14.5 percent of
the total nesting activity in North Carolina and 15.4 percent of
loggerhead nesting in North Carolina.
the two years of 2008 and 2009 under the consent decree, CHNSRA had
14.5 percent of the total nesting activity in North Carolina (the same
as 2007 under the Interim Plan) and only 15.05 percent of loggerhead
nesting in North Carolina (less than under the Interim Plan of 2007).
Since the consent decree went into effect on May 1, 2008, and the first
sea turtle nest was not laid until May 10, a true comparison for the
nesting season can be made -- unlike piping plovers. There were already
breeding pairs of piping plovers on the seashore when the consent
decree went into effect.
a side note, false crawls -- when sea turtles come ashore but do not
nest--were 27 percent lower than in the four years from 2000-2003 than
they were in 2008 and 2009 under the consent decree. This was
despite the fact that during the 2000-2003 years, night driving on the
beaches was allowed and there were more visitors on the seashore. Three
of these four years set record numbers with average visitation of
2,706,175 recreational visitors per year to CHNSRA. Under the past two
years under the consent decree, visitation was 22.2 percent lower with
an average of 2,214,468 recreational visitors.
crawls are measured by using the number of false crawls compared to the
number of nests and expressed as a ratio. U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service considers a false crawl to nest ratio of 1:1 as normal for an
undeveloped beach. The false crawl to nest ratio at CHNSRA for the
years 2000-2003 with night driving averaged 0.75:1 -- substantially
less than an undeveloped beach -- and the false crawl to nest ratio for
2008 and 2009 was 0.95:1 -- with no night driving.
the consent decree -- which is very similar to Alternative D of the
DEIS regarding sea turtle management, which closes 40.8 miles of the
seashore to ORV use and is supported by SELC, Audubon, and DOW --
resulted in and average loss (nests with a zero hatch rate) of 33.86
percent of nests laid at CHNSRA, or over twice the rate of loss
categorized as catastrophic in the 2009 Loggerhead Recovery Plan for
Georgia in 2001. All losses were due to inundation or erosion with no
hurricane within 400 miles of our coast. What is the term used for a
rate over twice that of catastrophic? Is it a “take” under the
Endangered Species Act? If so, then these three groups support a plan
that more than likely will produce the same catastrophic (times two)
results as did the consent decree.
Park Service officials at CHNSRA also have this information and have
chosen not to look at their own data. The most relevant science for
CHNSRA must come from CHNSRA data.
One basic conclusion from this data is that false crawls, with night
driving and night recreational use, had not been a problem until the
NPS introduced flexible and reflective carsonite stakes to replace the
wood 2-by-2 stakes at all closures in 2004.
There is no valid reason for a night driving ban at CHNS based on data
A sad by-product of the misleading and flawed sea turtle claims of
SELC, Audubon, and DOW is that their supporters, much of the news
media, many politicians, perhaps some judges, and other environmental
groups believe these half truths and omissions as fact.
Perhaps it would better serve the public if the aforementioned groups
find a more reliable source for factual information. If the general
public only knew the truth, they might stop donating their hard-earned
money to these groups that intentionally supply misleading information
and half truths.
The important thing for sea turtles on the seashore is to develop a
plan that allows for lower nest losses and more hatchlings to get to
the ocean. Increased numbers of nests are of little value unless they
hatch and the hatchlings actually get into the ocean.
Outer Banks Preservation Association, North Carolina Beach Buggy
Association, and the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club have submitted a plan
to do just that as part of their DEIS comment. It is available at http://www.obpa-nc.org/turtles/TurtleMgmtProgram.pdf.
This proposed plan is based on methods used at other sea turtle nesting
sites that have been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as
well as the appropriate state departments, and all are operating under
the same Loggerhead Recovery Plan as CHNSRA.
In a nutshell, the plan calls for the use of the following at CHNS:
relocation guideline of “the debris line of the spring high tide” line
as used in South Carolina rather than the “average high tide line,”
which is impossible to calculate, as required by North Carolina
Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) for CHNSRA. South Carolina lost
less than 15 percent of its nests in 2009, while we lost more than 35
percent on the seashore. The fact that South Carolina relocated more
than 40 percent of its nests in 2009 contributed greatly to this lower
percentage of lost nests. Nests laid “near dune crossovers” are also
relocated in South Carolina. At Cape Canaveral National Seashore in
Florida, sea turtle nests are relocated if “the nest is located at the
base of a heavily traveled boardwalk.” Yet CHNSRA is told by the state
Wildlife Resources Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Service that
nests can not be moved for the convenience of recreational use.
use of “relocation zones” as used at Pea Island National Wildlife
Refuge on Hatteras Island for at least 15 years and at Cape Lookout
National Seashore. Cape Lookout lost only 17 percent of its nests in
2009, while Cape Hatteras lost more than 35 percent. Over the last 20
years the emergence rate for relocated nests at Cape Lookout has been
66 percent as compared to only 57 percent for nests not relocated.
complete all night “nest watch” program, which would assure that
hatchlings actually get into the ocean and provide access along our
beaches without $150 fines issued to a pedestrian walking along our
shoreline. Thus, the 10-by-10 meter closures around a nest
have to be expanded only at night during a hatch.
night driving ban is not indicated for CHNS as our “science” at the
seashore clearly shows ORV activity and other recreational activity at
night is not a contributor to the false crawl to nest ratio. Records
show that during 2000 through 2003, the false crawl to nest ratio was
only 75 percent of the level that the Fish and Wildlife Service expects
of a beach with no human activity.
The combination of the above four concepts will dramatically increase
sea turtle production at Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational
Area, while allowing increased access to our seashore.
Hardham is president of the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club, was a member of
the Park Service’s Negotiated Rulemaking Committee, and has been a
volunteer turtle watcher at Pea island National Wildlife Refuge for 15
years. The facts cited in the article come from the National
Service Web site: http:www.nature.nps.gov/stats, Cape Hatteras National
Seashore Annual Reports for sea turtles 2000-2009, the Draft
Environmental Impact Statement for ORV rulemaking on the seashore, and
the guidelines of marine turtle permit holders from the South Carolina
Department of Natural Resources.)