Each summer from May through August, something wondrous happens along Space Coast beaches: An ancient mariner, the loggerhead sea turtle, leaves the water during the night and crawls ashore to lay her eggs in a sandy nest. Preparing the nest may take her over an hour to accomplish, requiring the turtle, who weighs several hundred pounds, painstakingly digs a nest cavity using only her rear flippers. She then deposits approximately 100 pliable ping-pong ball sized eggs into the nest, covers them with sand and returns to the sea. After roughly a two-month incubation period, a cluster of tiny hatchlings emerges from the sand and scrambles to the sea.
The Archie Carr Refuge
The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, is located along a twenty mile section of coastline from Melbourne Beach to Wabasso Beach, Florida along Florida State Road A1A. The 900 acre refuge was established in 1991, to protect the Loggerhead and Green sea turtles. The refuge provides nesting habitats for approximately one-fourth of all sea turtles nesting in the United States. About 15,000-20,000 sea turtles nests are laid annually, mostly loggerheads, green sea turtles, and some leatherbacks. The refuge also provides habitat for several other threatened and endangered species.
Llewellyn M. Ehrhart is professor emeritus at the University of Central Florida. He is a biologist who, for 29 years, has studied marine turtle nests on the beach at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. Since 2001, The Brevard Zoo has been a proud supporter of Dr. Ehrhart’s projects, providing $21,000 in conservation grants. Recently, Dr Ehrhart summarized the status of the three species that nest on the Florida coast, more specifically Brevard County, in his report to the Brevard Zoo.
Of the three species, the loggerheads had fallen into what was generally described as “a steep and serious” decline, which lasted through 2004 or 2007, depending on interpretation of the data. The sharp decline seen after 1998 drew the attention of the governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the international marine turtle conservation community. According to Dr. Ehrhart, that decline has leveled off, at least in the most recent four to six years. ” We logged 12,233 loggerhead nests at Carr in 2010, equivalent to 73,500 statewide and about 30 percent more than the number seen in the 1980s.”
In summary, Dr Ehrhart reported to the zoo that, “The 2011 loggerhead nesting season is nearly over, so we can confidently estimate that we will document about 11,000 loggerhead nests at the Carr Refuge — not as good as last year but still 18 percent above the level seen in the 1980s.” Good news for the zoo and the community.
The Florida green turtle
Dr. Erhart went on to say,
“The really big story of the past two decades, at the Carr Refuge and elsewhere in Florida, is the recovery of the Florida green turtle.When our research group began systematic, seasonlong surveys of marine turtle nesting on this beach, we documented fewer than 50 green turtle nests on the 21-kilometer expanse, in each of the first three years (1982-1984). Compare that to the roughly 9,300 loggerhead nests on the same beach in those years. Clearly, the Florida green turtle was teetering on the brink of destruction in the late 20th century. In spite of the paltry nature of those numbers, this beach was recognized as the best green turtle nesting beach in the country,By about 1990 green turtles began to gain traction as the result of the protection afforded by the federal Endangered Species Act, to which they became subject in 1978. The numbers of green turtle nests grew exponentially through the ’90s and the last decade to a degree rarely if ever matched in the annals of Threatened/Endangered Species Recovery. In 2010 we documented 4,095 green turtle nests at Carr and it is clear, now, that we will top 5,000 in 2011….Nest production by adults on the beach and capture rates of juveniles in the lagoon, taken together, constitute strong evidence of the beginning, at least, of the recovery of the Florida green turtle.”
The leatherback turtle
Leatherbacks are the largest of the marine turtles. Most of those nesting in Florida weigh 700 to 900 pounds, although many secondary references say they reach three-quarters of a ton (1,500 pounds). The survival status of leatherbacks differs vastly in the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific. Massive egg harvest on the four big Mexican Pacific nesting beaches and incidental take by long-liners, net fishermen and trawlers have reduced nest numbers (a measure of the size of the adult female population) from about 160,000 in 1980 to, perhaps, fewer than 1,000 today. [Poaching] Outright lawlessness on the beaches makes it difficult to get crucial data but aerial surveys have provided some insight. In some areas of the Pacific, where many thousands nested in the past, the population has been decimated. Dr. Ehrhart reported, ” The status of the leatherback in the Pacific is, quite simply, a train wreck. ” On a brighter note, the plight of the leatherback in the Atlantic appears to be much improved.
Dr. Ehrhart recalled that during the first 15 years of his work at the Carr Refuge he saw virtually no leatherback nesting whatsoever. Then, in 1996, 10 clutches were deposited on the Carr beach, and the numbers have been rising ever since. That the “steep and serious” decline, seen in the last decade, has bottomed out and leveled off, can be regarded as good news. That and the extraordinary trends in green turtle and leatherback survival status should gladden the heart of anyone interested in wildlife conservation in general, marine turtle conservation in particular.
Brevard Zoo engages in numerous fund-raising activities throughout the year and Dr. Ehrhart’s work is just one beneficiary. The zoo’s mission is Wildlife Conservation through Education and Participation. Generous donations enable them to continue their mission.