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Date of Issue: October 11, 2007

Sandscript

Sea turtle nesting down dramatically, fishing fees increase substantially

Islanders love our sea turtles. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many coming ashore as in years past.

Let’s face it: loggerhead sea turtles, which are the predominant species of the marine reptile which visit Anna Maria Island’s beaches, aren’t all that warm-and-fuzzy looking. They’ve got a scowl on their armored faces, unlike the smile on the dolphin or the cuddly look of manatees.

But to watch a mama sea turtle crawl out of the surf, lumber up the beach, laboriously dig a nest, lay her 100-or-so eggs, cover the nest, then struggle back to the water, is a wonderful thing to behold.

And when the little hatchlings come scampering out of the sand and, flippers flying, zip to the water … wow!     

But there is trouble in turtle town, at least as far as a Florida analysis of long-term data on turtle nests is concerned.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released a report that indicates a nearly 28 percent decline in turtle nests on Sunshine State beaches from 1989 to 2006. The state agency calls the decline “significant.”

“The index of loggerhead nest counts between 1989 and 2006 shows that there has been a decrease of 27.8 percent over the 18-year period, and a 45.8 percent decline since 1998,” according to FWC officials. “The nesting index uses sea turtle nest counts made by hundreds of participants who survey turtle tracks and nests at certain Florida beaches. The participants hold a Florida Marine Turtle Permit and are specially trained in sea turtle nest identification. Participants are also required to follow a rigorous protocol to ensure nest counts reveal unbiased trends.”

Then the news gets worse.

“Florida accounts for more than 90 percent of the loggerhead nesting in the United States, with a nesting aggregation considered to be one of the two largest remaining in the world,” FWC folks said. “Although loggerhead sea turtles nest at many locations around the world, nearly 90 percent of the world’s population is believed to nest on the beaches of Florida and Oman, a country on the Arabian Peninsula. A preliminary assessment of data from the 2007 season suggests another “down” year for loggerheads, possibly the lowest nesting in the history of this program.”

More bad news: According to the FWC, loggerhead sea turtle deaths in Florida have more than doubled during the past decade. That means that not only are there less turtles coming ashore, there are more turtle deaths out in the water, which, of course, means fewer turtles to come ashore and … you get the picture.

Suzi Fox is the sea turtle maven for Anna Maria Island. She’s got records going back to 1992, and totally agrees with the FWC report.

“All the numbers are way down,” she said of both the Island and other beaches in Florida.

She noted an interesting element of the turtle nesting pattern, at least on the Island, in that post-beach renourishment there appears to be a trend for more female turtles coming ashore. Whether it is a factor of more beach for the turtles to climb onto and dig nests into, or something else, she doesn’t know, of course, but the fluctuations from year to year during renourishment activity has been significant.

Ironically, Fox said that most turtle aficionados frown on renourishment, citing a lack of nesting in the years following the addition of beach sand. Not so on Anna Maria Island, apparently.

She cited the disparity in nesting activity between 1997, pre-renourishment with 161 nests, to 1998, when the project was completed and there were 225 nests on the Island. In 1999, a record number of 244 nests were located by Turtle Watch volunteers. The nest numbers since have steadily gone down.

Fox said the 2007 season saw 138 nests, which is somewhat good.

No, it’s not good, come to think of it.

On vacation at Cocoa Beach a few years ago at a oceanfront resort, I got up early to walk the beach in search of a place that sold coffee. In a 300-foot walk, I must have counted 30 turtle nests that had been laid overnight. Granted, it was a high tide the evening before and the moon was full - ripe conditions for nesting. But a sea turtle nest every 10 feet?

We’re lucky to have a handful every mile or so on our beaches, but the east coast sees almost too many to count.

 

What to do?

It is estimated that only one little scampering sea turtle out of 1,000 will make it to adulthood. Although numbers are not a strong point for some of us, with 138 nests with 100 eggs per nest, that translates to about 14 of the 2007 sea turtles that hatch on the Island will survive and come back to our shore to nest.

Oops, check that. Figure only half of them are female.

So our “brood crop” of sea turtles for this year is seven.

Now add in even worse news from Fox.

When she took over the reins of Turtle Watch in 1996, she had two dead turtles and, as a newbie, called in the world to help her collect the needed data. That was two dead adult turtles.

Now, Fox says it’s not uncommon for her to do reports on two a week. She suspects red tide as a culprit, although the dinoflagellate infestation has been sparse off Southwest Florida of late.

She also said that the sightings of sub-adults have greatly diminished.

“Artificial lighting on nesting beaches causes hatchlings from nests to crawl inland rather than toward the water,” FWC officials said. “On developed beaches, coastal armoring meant to protect buildings from erosion has resulted in the loss of nesting habitat near natural dunes. Throughout the state’s waters, collisions with boats provide the most common identifiable cause of trauma in sea turtles that wash up dead on beaches.”

By the way, all three Island cities have a very active program to deal with lighting on the beach to avoid the incidents of “turtle pancakes” on Gulf Drive when hatchlings get disoriented by lights, head away from the water toward shoreside lights, and get flattened by car tires.

What about all the tropical storms in 2004-05? FWC said that “hurricanes have a very limited effect on nesting activity of adult female turtles. And because loggerheads hatched on Florida beaches require some 20–30 years to reach maturity, recent storm impacts would not manifest themselves for many years. Moreover, hurricane impacts to nests tend to be localized and often occur after the main hatching season.

“Some threats to Florida’s loggerheads occur far from the state’s waters and beaches,” FWC continues. “During the approximately 30 years it takes for a loggerhead sea turtle to mature, a turtle is likely to have passed through widely separated ocean regions where major sources of incidental mortality occur. These threats include drowning in fishing trawls pulled to catch shrimp and hooking and entanglement by open-ocean longlines set to catch sharks, tuna and swordfish.”

Fox said there are six nests left this season to hatch. Please, turn out your beachfront lights to avoid disorientation, volunteer for Turtle Watch next year, and help our grim-looking sea turtles survive.

 

Ouch!

In more bad news from the state of Florida, a new fee schedule was established for hunting and fishing licenses beginning Oct. 1. For visiting saltwater fishers, it was quite a hit.

The Florida Legislature approved the new fee schedule during its 2007 session. Hunting fees were last changed in 1979; fishers saw an increase in 1989.

According to the FWC’s Bob Wattendorf, “When fees for fishing licenses were last increased in 1989, gasoline cost 89 cents a gallon. But even with the new fee increases, the cost of hunting and fishing in Florida falls below the median costs for the other 49 states. Also, the percentage of increase is well below the rise in the cost of living seen since 1989.”

FWC states that “all the fees from these licenses go back into conserving fish and wildlife resources and benefit anglers and hunters.”

The fee hike is modest for Florida residents: $14 before, $17.50 now for an annual license.

For non-residents, though, the increase is significant.

A three-day license to fish in the waters off Anna Maria Island used to cost $7. It’s now $17.50. Want to fish for a week? What was $17 is now $30.50. Non-resident annual fee? Used to be $32, now it’s $47.50.

“It’s outrageous,” said Bill Lowman, who has been selling fishing licenses on the Island out of Island Discount Tackle at Catcher’s Marina in Holmes Beach for years. “We’ve been told the money from the fishing licenses stayed out of politics, and went for more law enforcement and environmental things like seagrass plantings, but this smells like pork to me.”

“The increased revenue, expected to total $10 million annually within four years, will not create new programs, but will offset a predicted $12.5 million deficit by 2010,” according to Sandra Wilson, director of finance and budget at FWC.

As to the increase, “It will allow our habitat restoration, fish stocking, law enforcement and outreach programs to continue without cuts,” Wattendorf said. “We can’t guarantee that some things won’t be trimmed in the future, but the expectation is the license fee increases will prevent us from going backwards.”

I have to side with Lowman on this one. Welcome back, winter fishing friends? So good to see you? Now spend more than $30 bucks to go fishing for a week?

 

Sandscript factoid

Turtle Watch reports, as an example of the sea turtle nesting decline in our part of the world is found at Clearwater Beach, where a “whopping” 36 loggerheads nested this year. The Pinellas County beach traditionally mimics Anna Maria Island in its annual census of nests. We had 139 in 2007.

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