As sea turtle nesting season comes to an end, local advocates say protection efforts are working

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HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (WSAV) — Sea turtle nesting season is from May through October, and researchers and conservationists in the region say efforts to protect turtle populations have been successful.

“In 2021 we had 316 nests, which was only the third time we broke the 300 nest mark,” says Dr. Joseph Pfaller, the research director for the Caretta Research Project.

Dr. Pfaller says conservationists began noticing a decline in sea turtle populations in the 1970s. Over the last several decades, researchers found that fishing practices, predators and unsafe nesting locations are major threats to sea turtles.

“In Georgia, for example, we knew that the populations were lower than they had been in the past. We were seeing a lot of predation on the nesting beaches and we were seeing a lot of turtles washing up dead on the beaches in the 70s, 80s and 90s without any injuries,” says Pfaller. “So these turtles washing up, we didn’t know what they were dying from, but it looked like they had drowned and we identified that they were dying in the shrimp trawlers.”

Dr. Pfaller says practices in the fishing industry are having a negative impact on sea turtle populations and their environment.

“The shrimping industry not only catches turtles, but it also drags nets on the bottom, which rip up the whole bottom of the ocean where the turtles hang out and feed and where a lot of other organisms live too,” he says. “Longline fisheries out in the open ocean catch a lot of turtles; a lot of young turtles like to hang out in the open ocean.”

Now, Pfaller says they are trying to combat these issues.

“So this combination of losing a lot of eggs during incubation on the beach to predators, and turtles dying in the water in the shrimping industry, caused us to attack this in two different ways,” the research director says. “One was to protect the eggs on the beach to produce more hatchlings from those nests and the second was to work with the shrimping industry to develop an apparatus called a TED.

“TED stands for turtle excluder device, that allows turtles that get caught in shrimp trawlers to get out without drowning.”

However, there are other threats to the sea turtle population that are not so easy to manage — threats caused by climate change, says Dr. Pfaller. He says warming ocean temperatures can be fatal to hatchlings and are also skewing turtle sex ratios, leading to a decrease in male populations.

“On sea turtle nesting beaches around the world, some places have such high nest temperatures that they will actually shade nests or water nests to keep those temperatures lower and produce more males in those nests,” says Pfaller.

He says in addition to warming, ocean acidification is affecting sea turtles’ sources of food.

“Ocean acidification, which is also a product of climate change, can cause changes in the things turtles eat. They eat a lot of marine invertebrates that put calcium in their bodies and the way ocean acidification affects those invertebrates can harm sea turtles and might also affect how turtles calcify their eggs,” says Pfaller.

Conservationists on Hilton Head Island are seeing similar results in their efforts to protect sea turtles. They had a record number of nests in 2019 and have continued to see encouraging trends, says Amber Keuhn, the director of the nonprofit organization Sea Turtle Patrol.

“Our efforts are definitely making a difference, we know that because we can see the trends from the early 2000s when we were excited to break 100 nests on Hilton Head Beach and now we’re disappointed if we don’t hit the 300s,” says Keuhn.

Researchers and conservationists say you can help protect sea turtles during the next nesting season by avoiding nesting areas, filling in any holes you dig on the beach, turning off your lights or using yellow bulbs at night if you live on the beach or in the dunes, driving your boat slowly, packing up all your beach gear and picking up trash on the beach.

For more information on sea turtle safety and to find out how you can support these organizations, you can click HERE to visit the Caretta Research Project or HERE for the Hilton Head Island Turtle Patrol.

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