Sea turtle nesting remains strong, though not to the record heights seen last year.
After a superb season in 2019, sea turtles on Longboat Key have mellowed out to “pretty good” rather than “record-breaking” for their nesting season.
“We would actually be very surprised if we break a record,” Mote Marine senior biologist Melissa Bernhard said. “We’re probably not going to be up at the very top as far as nesting numbers go, but we are probably going to be in fourth or fifth place overall.”
Though low numbers might sound like cause for concern, the turtles are doing just fine, Bernhard said. The last five years have been the top five years in terms of nesting numbers, and the area is still up over the numbers from about five years ago.
“We’ve been doing like a weird doubling and then stabling out for a few years and then doubling again and then stabling, so we’re seeing an overall exponential increase over the last decade or 15 years,” Bernhard said.
It actually doesn’t make a lot of sense to compare this year to last year, since turtles generally nest about every two years. And when you look at it, the 2020 nesting numbers are very similar to the 2018 numbers. Many times, turtles take a year off nesting, though it’s never true that turtles always do one thing.
“Even the same individual doesn't do the same thing,” Bernhard said. “I always talk about how dogs have their own little personalities. I think turtles do too as far as where they want to nest or when they're going to nest and all that.”
Bringing up baby
Late July marks about halfway through turtle season and nests are starting to hatch. New nests are declining, having peaked in late June, so the focus is turning to the babies. The Longboat Key Turtle Watch is still performing excavations to get the hatchlings out when needed, but the patrols are small.
“We really split up the zones, so some folks are walking alone,” LBKTW president Cyndi Seamon said.
With the pandemic closing most other activities, people have turned to the beach. More people have been noticed on the beach this year, especially at night. Multiple nests have had to be restaked after being messed with, and there have been reports of people going around looking for nesting mothers and hatchlings, Bernhard said.
“I can't definitively say that there's been a huge impact … but we try to discourage that, because the nesting females are easily spooked and the hatchlings are very small and very fragile,” Bernhard said.
The perennial problem is turtle safety. Longboat Key has an ordinance that bars beachfront furniture from being on the sand from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. to protect turtles from entanglement and mandates turtle-safe lighting for all beachfront properties.
It’s tough to get everyone to comply. That's where Chris Kopp, the town’s new code enforcement, steps in. He’s logging every potential code violation and following up with who found it and the property in question.
“I log that into our system which will help me better track some hotspot properties, and then I write down all my properties to go visit ... and I want to get out there and educate,” Kopp said.
Often, the problem is that employees leave at 5 p.m. and can’t check for violations at night. One vacation rental company has begun checking its properties nightly to ensure compliance.
“I wanted to make sure this wasn't a get out of jail free card for these properties,” Kopp said. “But this way, we were able to fix the problem early in the night, before issues arise.”
The ordinance, while useful, isn’t perfect, and Kopp is making note of weak spots in order to make Longboat Key a turtle-safe zone. The ordinance currently states that beach furniture must be dragged to the vegetation line, but on July 26, a turtle was found tangled in beach chairs that were stacked and moved to the line, in compliance with the ordinance. The turtle got out safely, but it’s a teachable moment and time to look at how to revise the ordinance to avoid that in the future, LBKTW president Tim Thurman said.
“There’s always room for improvement, and we discover those as situations arise,” Kopp said. “The hope would be that in a year, in a couple years, Longboat Key’s ordinance is number one in the state.”