Cape Hatteras National Seashore has already broken a record this year for sea turtle nests – 131 as of Thursday, Aug. 5.
The previous record was 112 nests in 2008. In 2009, nests were slightly down, but still above average at 104.
You need not jump to the conclusion that nesting is up because of the court-sanctioned consent decree under which the seashore has been managed since 2008. That decree banned night driving on the beach during the nesting season and spelled out the closures for nests.
The fact is that sea turtle nesting is up all along the southeast coast in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia on beaches that are not operating under the decree.
It’s just a good year for turtle nesting.
As of today, 748 nests have been reported in North Carolina, and there are weeks to go in the nesting season, though it is beginning to wind down.
The loggerhead is the predominant sea turtle that nests in the state.
The breakdown of this year’s 748 nests is 729 loggerheads, six green turtles, two leatherbacks, three Kemp’s ridleys, and two unknown species.
That is up compared to last year’s 612 loggerhead nests, and above the state average of 720 loggerhead nests.
Godfrey says the record since statistics have been kept is 1,140 loggerhead nests in 1999.
South Carolina has reported 2,900 nests so far this year, far above the 2,194 last year. In 2008, the state recorded more than 4,000 nests and in 1981, there were more than 6,000.
On the undeveloped Cape Lookout National Seashore to our south, which usually has more nests than Cape Hatteras, there are 118 nests this year – below the Hatteras total of 130.
There were 141 nests on Cape Lookout in 2009 – more than the Hatteras total of 104 -- and 107 nests in 2008, slightly below the Hatteras total of 112.
“We are seeing a very common up-and-down pattern,” Godfrey says.
Female sea turtles do not nest every year, but more like every two or three or even four years, he says.
Godfrey says the up-and-down numbers are less related to conditions on the beach than they are to food sources.
Here is what he says:
“Sea turtles are considered ‘capital breeders,’ which means that they will reproduce only when they have met a minimum threshold of energy storage (i.e. fat stores). If their foraging areas are not so productive in a particular year, that would mean that fewer individual females would reach the minimum threshold necessary for reproduction, and thus would likely postpone their reproduction for another season.
“This would result in fewer individuals starting their reproductive migrations and eventually nesting, and thus we would see fewer nests laid. The following year, if the food resources were more plentiful, more animals would enter reproductive condition, and thus the total number of nests laid would be higher than the previous year.
“Even if food resources were not significantly better in the second year, there would be a cohort of individual females that were closer to the minimum threshold (because they stayed back an extra year), and thus the total number of females ready to breed would be higher.
So, an up and down pattern is common for sea turtle annual nest numbers. Of course, there may be a few years of increasing or decreasing values, but overall, it goes up and down.”
Adult female turtles are said to come back to the beach where they hatched to lay their nests, but Godfrey noted that it seems apparent from satellite and flipper tagging that they come back to the “same region” where they hatched. That could indicate that not all females nesting on a certain beach – say Cape Hatteras or Cape Lookout – hatched on that beach but on a nearby beach.
Godfrey also addressed the issue of false crawls – when turtles come onto the beach but return to the ocean without laying a nest.
This year, the seashore has had 100 false crawls, compared to the 131 nests laid.
“Some people,” he says, “use it as an indication of disturbance on the beach.”
However, he says that the reason sea turtles make false crawls “is known only to them.”
“We don’t know why turtles make false crawls,” he adds.
Indeed from 2000-2003 when park visitation was up and there were no night driving restrictions, the false crawl ratio was .075:1. In 2008 and 2009, with park visitation down and restrictions on night driving, the false crawl ratio increased to .095:1.
Larry Hardham, president of the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club, a board member of the Outer Banks Preservation Association, and a member of the Park Service’s unsuccessful negotiated rulemaking committee, notes that no matter what the increase in nesting is, the more important number is how many hatchlings make it back to the ocean.
“If there are 150 ghost crab holes in front of a nest, they don’t have much of a chance,” he says.
To help the chances of baby turtles making it to the ocean, the National Park Service is bringing back its Nest Watch program, which recruits volunteers to stand watch over nests about to hatch and help ensure the young turtles make it to the ocean.
More information on that program is available on the Beach Access and Park Issues Page.
As of today, four nests have hatched on the seashore with many to go, and many of them are nests that when they reach their hatch window and are expanded will close down popular areas of the beach.
It probably won’t be long before you see the Southern Environmental Law Center media release, on behalf of the National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife, claiming that the consent decree has resulted in record sea turtle nests at the seashore.
When you read it, just remember that it’s been a good year for the turtles up and down the coast – not just on the seashore.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For other articles about sea turtle nesting:
A common sense approach to managing sea turtles…Shooting the Breeze, the Editor’s Blog, May 25, 2010
Sea Turtles nested in record numbers in 2008:
Federal agencies propose to move North Carolina Loggerheads to the endangered list: