Friday, July 20, 2012

Sea turtle nests meet Virginia's state record

It has been quite a summer for sea turtles at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach.

This nesting season has been a busy one, with refuge staff discovering nine nests with still more than a month left in the nesting season. The nests have been found at various locations: on the refuge, Sandbridge Beach, False Cape State Park and the busy Virginia Beach oceanfront. The highest number of sea turtle nests ever found and recorded in the state was nine in 2005. 

Loggerhead eggs. Credit: USFWS
The local sea turtle nesting season, which began on June 1, has so far yielded eight loggerhead sea turtle nests and one Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nest. The Kemp’s ridley nest is the first ever discovered in Virginia.

The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is an endangered species that usually nests in large concentrations further south along the Gulf of Mexico and until this year, has not been found nesting as far north as Virginia.

Kemp's ridley sea turtle. Credit: USFWS

Biologists are reluctant to explain this strange phenomenon. John Gallegos, refuge biologist at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, says he would need a few more years to assess before declaring a real trend.

“This occurrence definitely makes me sit up and take notice,” he said. “But there are always flukes. We need to watch what happens over the next three to four years before we draw any conclusions.”

But Gallegos is able to speculate a few causes behind this increase in turtle nesting on Virginia’s beaches. He believes that one of the causes may be climate change. The warming ocean temperatures could be pushing turtles to the northernmost limit of their nesting range.

Also, lasting damage to the Gulf from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill could be affecting the turtles’ choice of nesting ground. The spill had a major impact on all marine life in the Gulf, especially the already endangered Kemp’s ridley.

Despite nesting success this year, Gallegos worries that it could be bad news for the future of sea turtle populations.

Loggerhead hatchlings. Credit: USFWS

"Virginia needs to be more concerned with this issue,” he said. “If we are going to be seeing a higher percentage of turtle nests, we are going to have to change how beaches in Virginia are used. This could be controversial.”

Because Virginia is at the northern edge of sea turtle nesting habitat, not many policies are in place to properly accommodate and protect large numbers of nests. Gallegos predicts that if this trend continues, the refuge will have to partner with other organizations as well as private landowners to relocate nests to protected areas where biologists can ensure that they are undisturbed.

As a beach-goer, the best thing to do is to know what a turtle crawl looks like. A turtle crawl is a nesting turtle’s track through the sand and a telltale sign of a nest nearby. If you come across a turtle crawl or nest please call your nearest U.S. Fish and Wildlife office immediately so that biologists can make sure the eggs are safe.

Refuge staff and volunteers patrol the beaches daily to look for crawls during nesting season. Depending on the nest location, the eggs and the sand around them will be moved to a protected area on the refuge, until they hatch and are carried down to the beach.

In today’s uncertain ocean, every turtle’s life is important. “Our main role is to ensure that the nests that occur on our beaches are successful,” said Gallegos, “and that as many hatchlings as possible make it into the ocean.”

Staff digging up eggs to move nests. Credit: USFWS
Submitted by Maddie List

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