Beach Access and Park Issues
May 25, 2010

Guest column:  Where is the truth on sea turtle nesting success?


After 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 organizations.

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:

  • In 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.
  • In 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.
  • As 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.
  • False 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.
  • Furthermore, 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.
  • National 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 from CHNS!

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 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:

  • A 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.
  • The 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.
  • A 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 would have to be expanded only at night during a hatch.
  • A 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.

(Larry 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 Park Service Web site:, 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.) 

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