Endangered Sea Turtles… Threats and Solutions

Endangered Sea Turtles… Threats and Solutions


(playful music) – I’m Lucas Meers, marine science graduate at Jacksonville University, and Conservation Program Officer at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. For six years, I’ve
been walking the beaches of northeast Florida
looking for and marking sea turtle nests, and
recently, I spent a summer in Tortuguero, Costa Rica working with the Sea Turtle Conservancy. Join us as we learn about
the conservation efforts that are allowing this group of threatened and endangered
animals to make a comeback. We travel to Gainesville to discuss the Endangered Species Act
and threats to sea turtles with the Executive Director
of the Sea Turtle Conservancy. At the Florida Fish and
Wildlife Conservation Commission in Jacksonville, we discuss
the statewide nesting program with the wildlife biologist. And then we bring you on turtle patrol, with volunteers on Ponta Vedre Beach to search for turtle nests
and share in the delight of rescuing baby sea turtles. (calm midtempo music) Florida’s soft sands and warm waters provide some of the most
important habitat in the world for five species of sea turtles. The leatherback, the
largest and most ancient of the species, green, which
are mainly vegetarians, hawksbill, whose beautiful shell has been prized for centuries, Kemp’s ridley, the rarest
and smallest species, and the loggerhead, the most
common species in Florida. At the Sea Turtle Conservancy
in Gainesville, Florida, I caught up with David
Godfrey to talk turtles. – You know, we’re seeing
right now in Florida and in other places in the United States, some very encouraging trends
in turtle population numbers. So last year, for
example, was a record year for green turtle nesting in this state. That began with the
Endangered Species Act, and when all species of
sea turtles were included under federal protection by
the Endangered Species Act in the mid 1970s, that made
it so that you couldn’t go out and harvest
turtles for consumption. You couldn’t go out and
take their shells anymore, you couldn’t use them for meat, and at that time, turtles
were on the menu everywhere. Green turtles in particular. Through the ages, sea
turtles have been killed for just about everything
you can think of. – [Lucas] The beautiful shell of the hawksbill led to their downfall. This confiscated turtle was stuffed to be a wall ornament. And using their shell for jewelry is where the tortoise
shell style came from. These boots were made
from turtle flippers. Even the oils from turtle
fat were used in face cream. – So the passage of the
Endangered Species Act stopped our direct harvesting of them and gave them a fighting chance. Since that time, a lot
of work has been done to change human behavior, to protect important nesting sites, to identify other sources of mortality, like interactions with
commercial fisheries, in particular shrimp trawls, and things like our behavior
on the beach at night, lighting up the beach
with our homes and condos. We’ve learned a lot about
the things that we do that harm these animals, and
protecting them really began with that Endangered Species Act. – [Lucas] Now let’s explore shrimp trawls and turtle excluder devices. Since sea turtles must
surface to breathe air, they easily drown when caught in nets, unable to reach the surface. When nets are outfitted with
turtle excluder devices, sea turtles and other animals
can be shuttled out of the net instead of dying as bycatch. Most shrimp trawls in the southeastern US are required to use
turtle excluder devices, but not all do. Let’s see it in action. The shrimp trawl scours
the coastal bottom. A see turtle has been captured, where it will drown if
it does not get out. Instead of getting trapped
at the end of the net, it gets pushed up against the bars, allowing it to use the escape hatch. By increasing the use of these devices as well as modifications
to long line fishing, more sea turtles will live another day. Back on land, a different
type of innovative solution is turtle-safe lighting. Traditional lighting is
prevalent on Florida’s coasts and can distract and disorient sea turtles leading to injury and death. Turtle-safe lights, however, use longer wavelengths of lights
in the red-orange spectrum, and have little effect on sea turtles, allowing their natural
instincts to be fulfilled. This business is one of many
that has made the switch to turtle-safe lights. Now that we see how
turtle excluder devices and turtle-safe lights can
make significant impacts, let’s explore just how important nests are in conservation efforts. Back at the Jacksonville Zoo
and Gardens, where I work, I visited the FWC Field Lab to discuss the state-wide nesting program in Florida. The purpose of our Nesting Survey Programs are to give us some
information on how well the population’s doing. This gives us a chance to count actually in the end, to count the
numbers of mature females in the sea turtle population in Florida. When the sea turtles come
up to nest on the beach, they have to drag big, heavy bodies across soft sand, and they
leave very easy to see tracks, and the tracks are even
identifiable to species, so a loggerhead leaves a different track than a green turtle, different
track than a leatherback. So you can go along the
beach in the morning and look at tracks, identify
what species they’re from, and by looking at the
characteristics of the track and any digging that’s been done, tell whether the turtle nested or not. So if you do this on all
the beaches in Florida, every day during the nesting season, you can actually determine how
many nests loggerheads made, how many nests green turtles made, how many nests leatherbacks made, so each year you can see what
the total number of nests are, and over the years, you can see if those are
increasing or decreasing. – [Lucas] Allen showed me nesting data that can be found at the FWC website. – You can see here in the late eighties to mid-nineties, the numbers
each year were going up. There was a period here
where they were going down for about 10 years, and
there was a lot of worry, and there’s a lot of different
potential reasons for that, but the good news is that
they’re going up again. – [Lucas] Without these and other data, we would not understand
that loggerhead sea turtles are increasing in number, and that green turtles
just had a record year. So how does FWC obtain these data? – This is a huge undertaking that goes throughout all of Florida. This is covering all the
sandy beaches of Florida for a pretty long period of the year, say early spring to late fall, to count all the nests by all the species, in all areas in Florida, so from Pensacola to Key West to Jacksonville,
people are out counting. In northeast Florida, it’s
really all the sandy beaches. Northeast Florida has about
150 miles of sandy beach that all have to be surveyed. There are about 17 different
groups that do those surveys in Florida, so a total of
about 500 associated personnel, and they provide summary data, the overall kind of picture
of the data to the state, so that we can put that together to look at what the numbers are statewide. – [Lucas] As Allen mentioned, there are about 150 miles of sandy beaches in northeast Florida, and they provide important nesting grounds
for these ancient creatures. Let’s head to the beach to
learn about these nests. About a month ago, a loggerhead sea turtle emerged from the ocean,
trekked up the sand, and settled at a spot near the dunes, where she laid perhaps 100 eggs. Just a foot below the surface of the sand, the eggs are developing
into baby sea turtles. If all goes well, in about a month, the turtles will hatch and climb out in a flurry of tiny flippers and head immediately toward the ocean, using the reflection of the moonlight on the water as their guide. In just last year, over
1,300 loggerhead nests were laid on beaches of northeast Florida. Every morning during the nesting season, groups of volunteers are out
in force on turtle patrol. Kaitlyn, Stephanie, and
I are part of a group of about 45 people that
monitor four miles of sand around Mickler’s Landing
in Ponte Vedra Beach just south of Jacksonville. We search the beach for new nests, and check the previous nests
to see if anything has changed. Maybe a nest got predated
by a dog, a crab, or was infested with fire ants. We’re sure to note any subtle changes to paint an accurate picture
of what happens to each nest. So far this season, we’ve
been walking for 15 weeks. 88 nests have been documented as we near the end of the nesting season. Okay, so this is at 45 days. We’re gonna need to do green tape. From years and years of data, we know loggerhead turtle nests generally hatch or emerge
between 50 and 60 days. So, when we approach a nest that’s been incubating for 45 days, we’ll mark it with green tape to remind us to keep an extra close
watch for the next few days. After hatchlings emerge from the nest, there are tell-tale signs. Like miniature tractors
rolling over the sand, turtle hatchlings leave
subtle impressions. A whole slew of tracks are seen stemming from a central location, a depression located at the
center of the marked nest where the baby sea turtles
emerged the night before. We document the emergence and take photos to help paint the picture of what’s happened to the nest, such as whether crabs or fire
ants have invaded the nest. We clear the debris in
front of the emergence area in case any other turtles
emerge on successive nights. Three days later, another
team excavated this nest and found many empty shells and discovered that those tracks came from 87 young turtles. This is nest 44, which
was laid eight weeks ago. Hatchlings emerged three nights ago, right on schedule. It is now time for us
to excavate this nest to obtain data for the FWC and to save any hatchlings
that might be trapped. As I dig, I’m careful, gently
feeling for any differences in the texture of the sand. I can feel that I’ve
reached the first turtles. The limpness of their bodies
tells me they are dead. Dead turtle after dead turtle is pulled out of the egg chamber and passed to Kaitlyn to get counted. The smell is horrible. Death permeates the air. I’m only getting dead hatchlings. The lineup of the dead
hatchlings is growing. Sometimes things go wrong with nests, and the turtles don’t make it. They hatched, but why didn’t
they emerge from the nest? I didn’t see any fire ants or crabs, so I wonder if being trapped in the sand caused them to be cooked by the hot sun. Okay, so I reached a
big section of the eggs, so the turtles actually hatched, and actually went above the eggs and they were trying to
get out but couldn’t, so that explains why I’m just now getting to the eggs shells, ’cause the egg shells were actually below the hatchlings. (gasps) A live turtle! – [Kaitlyn] Yay! – So right here we have
a loggerhead hatchling. This guy’s barely moving, but you can still clearly
tell that he is alive. Some slight movement, but he’s very weak. He’s been trapped down there
for a few days actually with all his brothers and/or sisters. We put the freed hatchling in a bucket that serves as as a holding area until it is released. And, not long after. Here’s another live hatchling, hes’ a little more
active than his sibling. So we’re actually gonna
put him in the bucket to join his sibling. By counting the number of egg shells, we can determine the number of hatchlings that made it out on their own. This nest had 85 dead turtles, making it one of the least
successful nests of the season in terms of hatchling survival. While it is difficult to see
all of these dead hatchlings, knowing they are sources of nutrients for the ecosystem puts it
into proper perspective. By placing the dead turtles and egg shells back in the nest, we allow
nature to take its course. 95 egg shells have been counted, so with the 85 dead hatchlings, and the two sea turtles we saved today, we determine that only eight turtles had emerged from the nest on their own. Now rescued, these two
turtles receive a helping hand to make it to the next
step in life’s journey. C’mon, little guy! Some need a little encouragement. Now, it’s October, and we have a few turtle
enthusiasts joining us. This is nest 78, the last nest my team will excavate this season. We have excavated five nests
since the dreaded death pit, and we’re hoping we’ll end
the season on a high note. I worry that the hard, compact sand made it too difficult for
hatchlings to make it out, and I brace myself for another
nest of dead sea turtles. But there, a nose of a
hatchling peeking out. I’m gonna slowly dig it out. Try not to injure it. He’s having trouble getting out because the sand is really compact from all the waves washing over. I’ll let him get out by himself. Ah, he’s so cute! Oh, I see there’s another hatchling. – [Voiceover] Another one! – [Lucas] This one I’m
gonna put in the bucket. There we go. See. There we go. We then encounter a turtle
covered in fire ants. This guy is really weak,
but he’s still alive. If we had not liberated
these trapped hatchlings from the compacted nest, fire ants may have eaten them. We quickly rinse her off in the ocean before putting her in the holding bucket. I’ve got another turtle, too. He’s struggling, but he’s doing it. – [Voiceover] There he goes, look at that! – [Lucas] Yeah, there we go! So far, all the hatchlings
we’ve encountered have been alive. – [Voiceover] He’s a mover and a shaker. – [Lucas] He’s really active. We have 10 hatchlings in the bucket. Here, we encounter a turtle
partially in his shell. We call this a “pip.” This pip and the rest of
the turtles we liberated bring our count to a total
of 15 live hatchlings. One dead hatchling, okay. – Number of shells? – Empty. – 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, [Both] 70, 80. – 83. – 83? We take the bucket of turtles a few feet down the beach
to release the hatchlings. To double check our
number of freed turtles, we count them one-by-one
until the bucket is empty. One. – [Voiceover] One! – [Lucas] Two. Three. – [Voiceover] Three. He looks a little wonky. – [Lucas] Four. – [Both] Five. – [Lucas] Six Seven. Eight. Nine. 13, 15. – [Voiceover] 15! – [Lucas] Total of 15. Some of these hatchlings
have weak flippers. Sometimes we see this when
the sand is really compact like we saw in this nest. And so some hatchlings are slow moving and struggle to move forward. Others are active and move
straight toward the water. Under the watchful eye of the volunteers, all these rescued hatchlings
make it safely to the ocean. We know only one to two turtles out of every 1,000 make it to adulthood. This year, on just this
four-mile stretch of beach, our data shows 7,700 baby sea turtles made it out of their nests. Maybe, just maybe, 15 of those will become
magnificent adults. Maybe even this one. (water splashing) Only three inches long, young Pip faces many hungry
predators in her new world. By instinct not fully
understood by scientists, Pip swims toward her new
home many miles offshore in the Sargasso Sea. The sargassum seawead provides important cover from predators. And the increase of sargassum seaweed also means an increase in food. She will spend the next
10 or so years of her life growing up to three feet
long and 200 pounds. Now, with her increased size, her only natural predators
are large sharks. Pip will now travel the long journey back toward the beach from which she came. How she knows where to
go and how to get there is not fully understood. But researchers have shown
that loggerhead turtles respond to the earth’s magnetic field. She’s not the only turtle to
have made the long journey, and she, along with other turtles, will spend the next 20
years growing into an adult in a relatively shallow
area along the coast. (rhythmic music) Now, at reproductive age,
she finds a suitable mate. About two weeks later,
Pip emerges from the ocean she has called home for the past 30 years to dig her first nest. There she lays upwards of 100 eggs to begin the next
generation of sea turtles. Pip then returns to the shallows, where she will mate up to six more times, depositing hundreds and hundreds of eggs by the end of the summer. After 50 to 60 days, the
turtles are fully developed and begin to hatch from their leathery, golf-ball-sized eggs. The hatchlings will wait
below the surface of the sand until the temperature
drops, signaling nightfall. Under the cover of darkness, when their predators are less active, they will emerge from the nest, and make their trek to the ocean. Those that escape their predators will swim to the Sargasso Sea, just as Pip did 30 years before. A journey that has been repeated by countless generations of loggerheads. Long before humans first
set foot on these beaches, they provided essential nesting
habitat for sea turtles. And all sea turtles that
nest here on this beach started out here as hatchlings years ago. They are true locals, and
instinct brings them back here year after year. It is our duty to be good
stewards to this habitat, and fortunately, there
are easy things you can do to reduce our impact on sea turtles. Don’t litter. Not only is it unsightly, but it can kill turtles of all sizes. Trash like this can entangle hatchlings when they emerge from the nest. Many times, turtles can
mistake our trash as food. A lot of different
plastics have been found in the stomachs of sea turtles,
including plastic bags. And remember, trash on the
sidewalks and in the streets eventually end up in the ocean. If you live or work directly on the coast, use turtle-safe lighting. Incorrect lighting can
repel females from nesting and disorient hatchlings
from going to the ocean, leading to their deaths. If you see a sea turtle or a nest, enjoy watching it, but make
sure not to disturb it. Just let it do its thing. If you see a dead or injured sea turtle, or someone disturbing
a nest or a sea turtle, dial *FWC on your cell phone to report it. You can purchase a sea
turtle license place. Proceeds from this specialty plate go to fund grants for conservation,
research, and education, and is the main source of funding for the FWC Marine Turtle
Protection Program. Volunteer to be a citizen scientist, or just tag along with
the turtle patrol team. That’s how most of us get our start. Thanks again for joining us, and next time that you’re on the beach, be sure to look out
for our ancient friends on the beach and in the water. For more videos and information
on sea turtle conservation and other sciency topics with
a northeast Florida focus, visit us at thescienceof.ju.edu. (rhythmic music) – Hey, I’m just a tourist
over from England, and just walk in the beach and
get involved with these guys. This is so important, a wildlife project to keep these guys alive, and these guys are doing
a terrific job doing that. – I came out for a nest
evaluation one day, and just kind of fell in love with it. – So just getting the
information, the data, about the nest is very important. And also as a volunteer on the patrol, you have the opportunity to help educate. – And being here on a night like tonight where we were able to rescue these 15 beautiful little babies and help them find their way to the ocean is really important, and
it’s a really great feeling to be part of such a beautiful thing. – Who’d of believed that this kind of life lives right here on our coast. I always thought it was only on TV and Jacques Cousteau.

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