IRG knew this year was going to be busy but we didn’t realize it was going to be crazy! A lot has happened in the past few months and the IRG team apologizes for not passing it along in the blog or on Facebook as much as we would have liked. The good news is that we’ve been up to our necks in turtles and have some good things to report!
First, sea turtle nesting on South Hutchinson Island has enjoyed another great year. Our 19 km of nesting beach had only 66 leatherback nests this year. While this was a relatively low number, leatherbacks have had record breaking nesting across the state in the past few years. A lower year was expected due to recent biannual nesting trends. Loggerheads had a strong season of nesting with 3,762 nests laid on our beaches. This was the highest number in the past 13 years. The 411 green turtle nests this year blew the previous record of 234 out of the water. Early reports from nesting beaches around the state also shattered previous numbers. Only 60 years ago, the recording of a single green turtle nest on Hutchinson Island was enough to attract the attention of preeminent turtle biologist, Archie Carr. Now, after years of conservation efforts, green turtles are making an amazing return to our beaches.
In addition to our work on the beaches, IRG of course spent plenty of time in and on the water this summer. IRG’s partnership with Dr. Kate Mansfield at the University of Central Florida led to a trip off of Venice, Louisiana to capture young turtles floating in the sargassum communities in the Gulf of Mexico. The crew had an amazing trip and caught 10 loggerhead, 2 green, 9 Kemp’s ridleys, and 1 hawksbill. Dr. Mansfield was able to satellite tag these little turtles and track their movements throughout the summer. This research will hopefully lead to a better understanding of how sea turtles behave out in the open ocean.
Trips to Lake Worth Lagoon and the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge also resulted in our successfully capturing many turtles and the data collected from these turtles contributed to the ongoing sea turtle monitoring going on at both sites. IRG captured 14 green turtles in the Lake Worth Lagoon, and another 7 greens and 25 loggerheads were captured in the Florida Keys. Both projects also began using standardized surveys to better assess sea turtle density at the sites. These repeatable surveys will help us better understand how sea turtle density changes over time and between habitats.
This year was the first season time we attempted to capture turtles in the Big Bend region of Florida’s gulf coast. The area is considered excellent sea turtle habitat, but no researchers were actively investigating how many or what types of turtles used the area. During the first trip off of Cedar Key, 43 turtles (14 green and 29 Kemp’s ridleys) were captured! This is IRG’s first time working with a large number of Kemp’s ridleys and they’ve quickly become a staff favorite. Their small size and the relative ease to catch makes Kemp’s a treat to study. Unfortunately, 80% of the green turtles captured during this trip were affected by fibropapillomatosis, a disease associated with poor water quality. This finding stunned the team since the area was thought to be pristine with minimal pollution. The IRG team is extremely excited to get back to the site and capture more turtles and attempt to learn more about what is affecting these turtles. Two more trips for 2014 are already on the calendar.
All summer a small IRG crew has been traveling back to the Gulf of Mexico in search of sea turtles in Louisiana’s nearshore waters. Aboard IRG’s brand new 27 ft Ameracat, the team searched over 1,400 miles of ocean in search of turtles. The distance was equivalent to making a transatlantic crossing! While many of those miles yielded no sightings, one region off of the Chandeleur islands showed promise for future work. The long treks also gave the new boat a very lengthy sea trial and the IRG team a lot of experience with the new vessel.
With record green turtle nesting, 111 turtles captured, and thousands of miles of ocean surveyed for turtles, the summer of 2013 will go down in the books as a very productive season. Although the data is currently being examined and the samples are being analyzed, we promise to pass on the exciting results when we get them!
We have to also thank all of our collaborators and volunteers who assisted with these projects. Without their efforts these trips would be impossible. This year’s research was supported by many organizations including: The National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Sea Turtle License Plate Grant, and an anonymous donor.