Broward program sees good summer for sea turtles, but climate, human threats loom large

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – It’s just after daybreak on Fort Lauderdale Beach and Local 10 News’ Louis Aguirre is riding with a crew from Broward County’s Sea Turtle Conservation Program at Nova Southeastern University.

“We’ve had a record setting season so far this year,” said program director and research scientist Dr. Dereck Burkholder. “It’s been it’s been a fantastic year.”

The group was checking in on the nests that have been laid along the shore over the past couple of months.

“In over 30 years of monitoring in Broward County beaches, we’ve already shattered our number of nests for all three species: leatherbacks, green turtles and loggerheads,” said Burkholder.

There has been an increase of 1,200 nests so far this year.

Against all odds, sea turtles are having a very good summer on South Florida beaches.

“We’ve seen about 4,200 nests,” said Burkholder. “And we’re still getting nests each day. That’s a fantastic number.”

One of the nests the group visited had hatched three days prior.

The team went in to excavate it to see how well it faired. Out of 95 eggs, 68 hatched.

A total of 18 baby loggerheads were still in the egg chamber. Though the majority of hatchlings had already left, those needed an extra boast to go on their way.

“We usually are going to find a few hatchlings that maybe didn’t make it out with everybody else, whether they were a little bit tired,” Burkholder said. “Maybe they got stuck.”

Since they were found before 9 a.m., Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rules allows them released to the sea, otherwise they’d have to be held and wait until nightfall to avoid them becoming prey to crabs and seabirds.

“It’s estimated that one out of every 1,000 turtles that leave the beach will make it to adulthood,” Burkholder said.

Many species of sea turtles are threatened or endangered, so the monitoring program is highly regulated by the state, which is why the video from the nest sites must, by law, be stamped with the ID of the team they were working with.

“Sea turtles face a wide variety of threats,” said Burkholder. “Once they get into the water, seabirds, fish, sharks. Unfortunately, everything else they deal with is our fault.”

Right now, scientists are closely monitoring rising global temperatures. The whole world is in the throes of the hottest summer ever recorded on the planet, bleaching our coral reefs and impacting the future of the tiny turtle hatchlings.

“For sea turtles in general, they’re the sex of the hatchlings is actually determined by the temperature of the sand that they’re incubating in,” said Burkholder.

According to a recent NOAA study, if temperatures of the sand stay below 81.86 degrees Fahrenheit, the hatchlings will be born male, but anything above 88.8 degrees means they’ll be born female.

Sand temperatures between those two ranges means a mix of genders and is essential for the survival of the species.

“That’s going to be one of those things that we’re going to have to figure out as time goes on,” said Burkholder. “Right now, we’re seeing potentially as much as 100% of our hatchlings, at least at certain times of the year, that are leaving South Florida beaches are female.”

But if the planet gets any hotter, the future for all hatchlings is in jeopardy.

“As things get too warm, and it can reach a critical temperature where the eggs will not survive,” said Burkholder.

And it’s not just climate change. Some oceanfront properties still are not complying with state law mandating sea turtle friendly lighting and instead continue to endanger baby sea turtles, who become disoriented in bright light and wander into danger.

“And so we really asked people to implement turtle-friendly lighting in their homes, their businesses, which is low to the ground, it’s shielded, and it’s long wavelength amber or red LED as best,” said Stephanie Roche, Environmental Project Coordinator with Broward County’s Natural Resources Division.

To give the hatchlings a fighting chance, strictly-monitored cages have been installed over nests near properties that still don’t comply, so that teams can safely release the baby turtles when it’s safe.

This season, they’ve had to install about 90 cages because not everybody is playing by the rules and installing sea turtle friendly lighting.

There’s been a vast improvement, but there’s still a long way to go.

“We also want people to remember their interior lights too, because that can be just as visible to the turtles on the beach as your exterior lighting,” said Roche.

But perhaps the biggest threat continues to be pollution and our obsessive addiction to plastic and balloons.

“Some of our species of sea turtles are eating jellyfish,” said Burkholder. “So that plastic bag looks just like a jellyfish in the water.”

“So they’ll go up they’ll munch on it,” added Abby Evans, Project Manager and Permit Holder for the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program. “They ingest it and then it just gets caught up inside of them and they’ll eventually die.”

The deck is stacked against our sea turtles, and that’s why the team is so dedicated to the mission.

From March to the end of October, rain or shine, they’re out there protecting the turtles that are left, making sure the keystone species survives for generations to come.

“The best part of the job is getting to see all the hatchlings and knowing that you are helping them as best as you can,” said Evans. “It’s really great. They are adorable. That never gets old.”

The most important thing we can do to help our sea turtles out is to leave the beach as clean and as natural as we found it.

Don’t leave holes in the sand, level your sand castles before you go home, and please don’t litter. Throw out your trash or take it home with you, and no more balloon releases. What goes up, must come down.

Also, sea turtles are protected, so if you see them, enjoy them from a safe distance. Please let them do their thing.

It is illegal to touch them or harass them or disturb their nests in any way.

The Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program at Nova Southeastern University does monitor a 24 hour, 365 day hotline, so if you ever see a sick, dead or injured sea turtle, please give them a call at 954-328-0580.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.