Like treasury bonds, 30 years of work to enhance sea turtle nesting grounds appears to have matured. Georgia sea turtle nest numbers reached 3,288 this year in a preliminary count, a significant increase from prior years.
As December begins, biologists are hoping for a similar outcome as other local sea creatures, right whales, begin making their way into area waters.
Turtle nest numbers this year have been nothing short of amazing, said Mark Dodd, sea turtle program coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s a pretty astonishing number, actually, because over the last 25 years we’ve been averaging somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200 nests,” Dodd said. “So, it’s kind of more than twice the long-term average, so it’s a really big jump for us.”
The 2016 nesting season closed in October.
Dodd said part of the conclusions at present are speculatory, but with population decline bottoming out around the early 1990s, that is when events took a turn. One move was to fully implement turtle-excluder devices on shrimp trawler nets.
Another was to deal with natural predators. Over the years, armadillos, raccoons and wild hogs attacked nests, which if left alone Dodd said could lead to a 60-70 percent nest loss. Counteracting that, workers help place protective cages over nests on remote islands and trap and remove predators when necessary.
“More recently we’ve had coyotes move out to the islands — coyotes have started to depredate nests in some areas, and they’re problematic just because they’re very hard to control,” Dodd said.
He noted the last five years have been periods of exponential growth, up from the usual 1 percent that began around 1991.
“And that, if we look back at our management of sea turtles in Georgia, it was right about 30 years ago that we started intensively managing our beaches to improve reproductive success,” Dodd said. “So, it takes about 30 years for females to become sexually mature, and so the reason for the increase that we’re seeing is implementation of TEDs in the early ’90s and nest protection and management.”
Another group of at-risk local sea creatures, right whales, have entered their calving season, but the outlook isn’t as clearly positive.
“It’s tough to say, because if you go back 20-30 years, the calving numbers in any given year vary tremendously,” said Clay George, DNR wildlife biologist. “And that’s because there’s not many right whales to begin with, but there’s even fewer breeding females. There’s only about 100 breeding females, and they can only calve every three or four or five years, and so a lot of years a lot of them happen to calve at the same time, and some years they don’t.
“With that said, the last few years have been below average. And, there’s some indication that the population is no longer increasing in size currently, or perhaps even contracting a bit.”
He said those numbers come from an unpublished academic study, however, and once it is published and peer-reviewed, the evidence of what is occurring should be seen in a clearer light.
The season did get off to an early start, though, as a South Carolina Department of Natural Resources boat off the coast of Sapelo Island happened upon a right whale around Nov. 16.
“And they were able to send us a photograph or two to confirm it was an actual right whale, and that’s about the time we’d expect the earliest sightings to start happening,” George said. “Our regular, routine right whale aerial surveys commence (today). So, (today) will be the start of the aerial survey work, and there will be two survey teams — one based out of St. Simons Island, and it’s a NOAA aircraft with our contractors have observers on the plane, scientists, and they’re with Sea (to Shore Alliance). The other airplane is based out of St. Augustine and is flown by the Florida Fish and Wildlife (Research) Institute.”
Also, if the recent past does predict the future, it might not be all bad.
“The good news is that over the last decade or so, the population was increasing at about 3 percent, and it almost doubled over a 20-year period,” George said.