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Sea Turtle Monitoring And Research From The Experts

 ECO Interview

Niki Desjardin Head shot web   

An interview with Niki Desjardin, Project Manager, Ecological Associates, Inc.

EAI senior staff have participated in numerous sea turtle monitoring and applied research programs throughout Florida and the Caribbean. These programs have included nesting surveys, nest marking, caging and relocation programs, net capture of juvenile and adult turtles, tagging and recapture studies, coastal lighting evaluations, and environmental impact assessments related to a variety of coastal construction and erosion control projects. EAI staff are authorized to conduct these activities under Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) Marine Turtle Permits (TP #010 and #162). EAI has also written and assisted with the implementation of Habitat Conservation Plans for sea turtles in several coastal Florida Counties. For more information visit www.ecologicalassociates. com.

You monitor sea turtles along Florida’s Atlantic coast from 1 March to 1 November each year. What species do you monitor and what do you look for during these trips?

We monitor beaches in Volusia, Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin Counties for sea turtle nests. The most common nesters in our area are loggerheads, green turtles, and leatherback turtles. We look for the tracks the turtles leave behind when they emerge onto the beach to make their nests. Each species has a unique way of crawling and unique nesting behaviors, so we can identify which species came ashore, and whether or not the turtle nested by examining the tracks and nest mounds.

Does each species nest at the same time?

Typically, leatherback sea turtles are the first to begin nesting each year. We have documented nests as early as mid-February. These turtles tend to nest into August, with a peak in April/May. Loggerhead sea turtles begin nesting in late April/early May. They will nest into September, with a peak in June/July. Green turtles begin nesting usually in May and will nest into October (occasionally later). Their peak nesting months are June-August.

How long has Ecological Associates been doing this work and what expertise does the company bring?

Ecological Associates, Inc. (EAI) has been performing sea turtle monitoring on Treasure Coast beaches for over 20 years. Our chief technical advisors, and original owners of the company, Bob Ernest and Erik Martin each have over 30 years of experience in sea turtle biology and conservation. In my role as Project Manager, I bring 15 years of experience in sea turtle research and monitoring, and I’m supported by a fantastic team, some of them with 10+ years of experience. EAI is a leader in sea turtle monitoring for beach construction projects and we have forged great relationships with many county governments, engineering firms and state and federal agencies.

A leatherback finishes covering her nest in the early morning hours. Photo credit: Niki Desjardin.

A leatherback finishes covering her nest in the early morning hours. Photo credit: Niki Desjardin.

Can you give us a historical perspective on how sea turtle populations in your region are doing this year?

Based on nest numbers documented thus far, it looks like we’re on track to beat last year’s high number of loggerhead nests (4,130) for our core monitoring area on South Hutchinson Island in St. Lucie and Martin Counties. Last year’s total was the highest number of loggerhead nests documented in this 10 mile stretch since 1995! Numbers dipped to a low of 1,996 nests in 2004, but have been on an increasing trend since then. As of June 30 this year, we’ve counted 3,277 loggerhead nests.

Green turtle nest numbers tend to alternate between high and low years. Last year was a high year with 479 nests, but we expect this year to be much lower. We have only documented 11 nests so far, and had 152 nests at this time last year.

Our leatherback numbers also vary a bit year to year, and this year appears to be a low year, with only 157 nests counted thus far. Last year at this time we had 267 nests.

Who are your partners in this work and how is the sea turtle data used?

Our partners in this work are usually county governments, engineering firms, and state and federal agencies. EAI conducts pre- and post-construction permit-compliance monitoring for many types of coastal construction projects, such as beach nourishment or dune restoration. The data are used to examine effects of construction on sea turtle nesting and reproductive success. We also participate in the Index and Statewide Nesting Beach Survey programs, and all of our data are submitted to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for its inclusion in the State’s protected species data library where it can be used for population analyses and to look at impacts to turtles by predators, humans, storms, etc.

EAI technician Gabbie Kaminski uses a highly accurate GPS system to record a loggerhead nest location. This instrumentation was used in Martin County for a study evaluating factors such as elevation and slope in a “turtle-friendly” beach nourishment template. Photo credit: Niki Desjardin.

EAI technician Gabbie Kaminski uses a highly accurate GPS system to record a loggerhead nest location. This instrumentation was used in Martin County for a study evaluating factors such as elevation and slope in a “turtle-friendly” beach nourishment template. Photo credit: Niki Desjardin.

How does your team assist injured turtles?

EAI is a participant in the State’s Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network (STSSN). We respond to strandings in our local area and assist with the documentation of dead turtles and assist in the transport of live turtles to rehabilitation facilities.

Do you see the same turtles across multiple mating seasons?

The majority of the turtle work we conduct occurs in the morning, after the turtles have nested, so we don’t have many opportunities to encounter the actual nesting females when they are on the beach. Therefore, we are not able to tell which turtles are repeat nesters year after year. When EAI does conduct sea turtle surveys at night during active construction projects, we occasionally have the opportunity to observe and/or tag nesting turtles. Our colleagues with the non-profit Florida Leatherbacks, Inc. have recently begun nighttime surveys on Hutchinson Island to observe and tag nesting leatherback turtles. Their work is revealing some cool nesting trends; in 2016 they saw a turtle that was tagged by EAI on Hutchinson Island in 2005 but had not been seen since then!

What happens if you find a hatchling during daylight hours?

If someone on the beach happens to find a hatchling during daylight hours, they should consider the circumstances, and call FWC, a lifeguard, or a local sea turtle facility if necessary. If it’s early morning, and a nest is still hatching, chances are the turtle will find its way to the water. If the hatchling is crawling away from the ocean and is in distress, the hatchling may be collected and brought to a facility that can accept hatchlings, such as the Florida Oceanographic Institute or the Loggerhead Marinelife Center. It’s important not to interfere with hatching turtles. This is because their crawling phase helps to orient them in the proper direction off the beach so that they can swim offshore into the Gulf Stream.

What are some of the natural variables that impact the success of sea turtle nesting?

Sea turtle reproductive success can naturally be affected by heavy rain, high surf/tides and saltwater intrusion into a nest, unusually high or low temperatures, and predation.

Why are flashlights and other lighting banned on the beaches where sea turtles nest?

Sea turtles use natural light cues in many phases of their life cycles. Adult turtles nest more successfully on dark beaches; they may become disoriented when attempting to nest or return to the ocean if there are bright lights on the landward horizon. Hatchlings use light cues to orient properly to the ocean after emerging from their nests. Artificial light can disrupt a turtle’s ability to navigate properly. Many coastal counties have lighting ordinances that restrict exterior lighting during the sea turtle nesting season (typically March 1 – October 31). During this time It’s important to turn off or shield your exterior lights. It’s also important to remember that interior lights can be harmful as well. EAI conducts nighttime lighting evaluations to identify problem lights and to help coastal property owners come into compliance with local ordinances.

People gather to watch a juvenile loggerhead swim around the new sea turtle tank exhibit, sponsored by EAI, at the Environmental Studies Center in Jensen Beach. Photo credit: Mark Mohlmann.

People gather to watch a juvenile loggerhead swim around the new sea turtle tank exhibit, sponsored by EAI, at the Environmental Studies Center in Jensen Beach. Photo credit: Mark Mohlmann.

How else are the nests you tally protected?

As part of our monitoring protocol, EAI only marks a percentage of the nests on the beaches we survey. We stake off the nest area and evaluate the nest when it hatches (or after a standard maximum incubation time if no emergence is observed). Otherwise, the majority of nests are not marked in any way. Most of the time the eggs are far enough below the surface that occasional foot traffic won’t harm them. However, people should use caution on the beach when digging sand castles or placing umbrellas in the sand, since there could be an unmarked nest nearby. It’s always a good idea to dig below the high tide line where there are likely no nests, and to hand dig a hole for your umbrella before you secure it deeply in the sand.

For people who want to observe turtles in the wild, what is the best way to do so?

The best way to observe a nesting turtle is to participate in a guided turtle walk. Many organizations in our area host these walks each summer. Since sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act, it’s unlawful to harm or harass them. Therefore, these walks offer the public a way to learn about turtles and to observe their nesting behavior without causing undue disturbance.

Coastal lighting along Hutchinson Island in Martin County is evaluated by EAI biologist, Joseph Scarola, during a nighttime lighting survey. Photo credit: Niki Desjardin.

Coastal lighting along Hutchinson Island in Martin County is evaluated by EAI biologist, Joseph Scarola, during a nighttime lighting survey. Photo credit: Niki Desjardin.

Can you describe your company’s Turtle Tank Exhibit?

EAI sponsored the installation of a turtle tank at Martin County’s Environmental Studies Center (ESC). The ESC holds a juvenile loggerhead turtle that is used to educate children about sea turtles. After two years, the turtle will be released, and a new turtle will be obtained. EAI has been involved in the Environmental Studies Council, the non-profit group that supports the environmental education programs offered by the ESC, for many years.

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