Sea Turtle Nests to Remain on Beaches of Northwest Florida and Alabama
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), working with partners from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided sea turtle nests will remain to hatch naturally on Florida’s Panhandle beaches. Biologists determined that the risks to hatchlings emerging from beaches and entering waters off Florida’s Northwest Gulf coast have diminished significantly under current conditions and believe the risks involved with translocating nests during late incubation to the east coast of Florida now outweigh the risks of letting hatchlings emerge into Gulf waters. The nest translocations began in June to protect sea turtle hatchlings from potential impacts from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“This is the very best possible news,” said FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto. “The translocation of these nests was a last resort to make sure the hatchlings had a fighting chance of survival, so we are pleased to announce a suspension of the program.”
Soon after the April 20 disaster, biologists and managers from state and federal agencies began planning for the worst-case scenario.
“The prospect of hatchlings emerging onto a heavily oiled beach or entering a near shore oil slick was unacceptable,” Barreto said. “That led to the difficult decision to move all nests in this area. Fortunately, conditions have improved, and we can now begin to allow the nests to hatch naturally. However, we will continue to monitor offshore habitats to ensure they remain suitable for hatchlings.”
After leaving the beach, hatchlings head offshore and inhabit areas where surface waters converge and are characterized by lines of floating material, especially Sargassum. Post-hatchlings within this habitat are observed to be low-energy float-and-wait foragers that feed on a wide variety of floating items at or just below the water’s surface.
“Due to this low-energy float-and-wait strategy, we believe that post-hatchlings are at a lower risk of encountering any potentially submerged oil and are pleased that the remaining hatchlings from Northwest Florida and Alabama beaches will be able to emerge into their native waters," said Cindy Dohner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southeast Regional Director. “However, if oil resurfaces in or near the hatchlings habitat, we may again determine translocation is the best option for the remaining nests.”
Dohner added, "Our partners played a vital role in executing this translocation work from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the Kennedy Space Center to FedEx, NOAA, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the existing network of FWC, FWS and local volunteers.”
“As the conditions in the Northern Gulf show signs of improvement, I am pleased we are able to safely suspend the nest translocations of these iconic sea turtles," said Tom Strickland, the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks in the U.S. Department of the Interior. "If our monitoring suggests habitat conditions diminish in the weeks ahead, we are positioned to resume the translocation of remaining nests. The collaboration of our dedicated scientists and partners has made the unprecedented translocation effort successful in protecting thousands of this years hatchlings.”
In Florida, 262 nests were excavated along the Northwest coast. The eggs were carefully placed in specially prepared foam coolers and driven by FedEx Custom Critical trucks to Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s east coast. “NASA is pleased we could support this unprecedented rescue effort by providing the proper location and facility for the hatchery,” said Bob Cabana, Kennedy Space Center director. “Sharing the same landscape with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge means Kennedy Space Center always is ready to help lend an environmental hand when possible.”
FedEx donated transportation and logistics expertise throughout the summer for the large movement of the fragile sea turtle eggs. The company took extensive precautions to provide for the safe transportation of the turtle eggs, developing a custom solution that included special shock-absorbing pallets, a thermal-mapped vehicle with state-of-the-art computer-controlled systems and dedicated commitment of drive teams, such as Bob Reddick and husband-wife driving team, Ron and Margaret-Mary Shellito, who have over 26 years with the company and over 8 million miles of safe driving. FedEx became involved in the project through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, an organization through which FedEx does community-based environmental volunteerism and philanthropy.
“This summer FedEx has helped rescue over 25,000 sea turtle eggs and driven over 25,000 miles providing for the safe and secure movement of this generation of hatchlings,” said Virginia Albanese, FedEx Custom Critical President and CEO. “We are honored to have been called upon to donate our expertise and support, and this project has been an inspiration for our team members.”
Jeff Trandahl, Executive Director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, praised the collaborative effort. “The hard work and quick action by all our project partners was critical to the success of this monumental task,” he said. “We were staring at a grave problem when we began, but ultimately demonstrated the tremendous benefits and results we can achieve by bringing together a formidable team of public and private partners.”
On the beaches where offshore conditions are still uncertain or where active nighttime beach clean-up operations or booms offshore might provide a hindrance, cages will be placed over the nests. The hatchlings will be released from the cages at the nearest beach site where safe conditions exist.
“This unprecedented rescue effort has had significant logistical challenges, but was critical to ensure hatchlings would not swim into hazardous conditions in the Gulf. It would not have been possible without the efforts of numerous partners and highly dedicated sea turtle permit holders in both states,” said Sandy MacPherson, the Service’s National Sea Turtle Coordinator.
The eggs translocated previously remain in their coolers in a climate-controlled building at Kennedy Space Center and are monitored by Innovative Health Applications biologists until the hatchlings emerge. Since July 10, more than 13,000 hatchlings – from nests collected from Northwest Florida and Alabama beaches – have been released into the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the nests are from loggerhead sea turtles, which is a threatened species. A few endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle and green sea turtle nests also have been translocated.
The Service also announced the suspension of nest translocation in Alabama. Federal biologists worked closely with their partners to successfully excavate 16 nests from the Alabama Gulf Coast. Approximately 350 nests remain on Florida’s Northwest beaches and about 20 nests on Alabama beaches. Females will continue to come ashore to lay eggs through the rest of August.
“This effort was successful as a result of partnerships dedicated to one end – the protection and conservation of our precious sea turtles,” Barreto said. “All of us at the FWC are very appreciative of the efforts of our staff, USFWS, NOAA, FedEx, Innovative Health Applications, NASA and our permit holders. We also appreciate the assistance of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Gulf Coast National Estuarine Research Reserves in Apalachicola and Rookery Bay.”
For more information on the sea turtle nest rescue effort, go to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services - North Florida Ecological Services Office. To report sightings of oiled wildlife, call 866-557-1401. More information on Sea Turtle Conservation.
Photos: Go to MyFWC.com/Newsroom and click on the headline for this story.