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Our Town with William Kelly: Sea turtle nesting on track for a record-setting year

But artificial lighting continues to threaten hatchlings on town beaches during nesting season.

This year’s sea-turtle nesting season could yield a record number of nests statewide, a state sea-turtle biologist told a Palm Beach audience earlier this month.

Robin Trindell, biological administrator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, was among a group of officials at Town Hall on Aug. 24 for the annual stakeholder meeting of the Palm Beach Island Beach Management Agreement.

“In certain parts of the state, and for the state as a whole, it looks like we’re going to pass previous record numbers for loggerheads and for green turtles,” Trindell said. “I think we’re going to top 80,000 green turtle nests, which is a new record, and perhaps over 100,000 loggerhead nests.”

Five types of sea turtles are found in local waters. Leatherbacks, loggerheads and green turtles regularly nest on local beaches, while kemps ridley and hawksbill turtles swim off the coast.

The turtles dig an average of two to eight nests per season, with about 100 eggs in each nest. The incubation period averages 60 days. Offspring typically hatch at night or during the early morning and find their way to the Atlantic Ocean by following the reflection of moonlight and starlight on the water.

All species that nest locally are listed as threatened or endangered and their nests are protected by state and federal law. The nests are not disturbed by routine beach activity, such as walking or lying on a blanket, but hatchlings often become disoriented by beachfront lighting as they try to reach the ocean, Trindell said.

A town ordinance requires all beachfront property owners to ensure that their lights are not visible from the beach at any time during sea-turtle nesting season, from March 1 through Oct. 31.
Preliminary numbers from the town’s turtle monitor show that, as of mid-July, the number of nests on the island this year had exceeded the total count for 2022.
As of July 16, the most recent data available, a total of 8,423 nests were recorded, including 7,892 loggerhead nests, 398 green nests, and 133 leatherback nests.
By contrast, a total of 7,303 nests were recorded on the island for the entire 2022 nesting season. That included 6,866 loggerhead nests, 351 green nests, and 86 leatherback nests, according to turtle monitor Christine Perretta of DB Ecological Services.
Perretta said Wednesday that sea turtles are cyclic nesters and many factors come into play when comparing high-yield and low-yield years. But, so far, 2023 is a banner year throughout the state.

“Across the board, the numbers that are coming in seem to be completely off the chain,” she said. “Some of that could be attributed to beach management across the state, like the Beach Management Agreement. It could also be related to their foraging habitat. Maybe they had great food sources this year.”

All 12.2 miles of shoreline in the town fall within the guidelines of the Palm Beach Island Beach Management Agreement, which was established in 2012 to streamline environmental permitting required for coastal protection projects, including large-scale sand nourishments and dune restorations.

The beach management agreement is a regional approach to coastal management that requires regular monitoring of the shoreline environment, including sea-turtle nesting activity, according to Lainie Edwards, deputy director for the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection.

The Town of Palm Beach is a partner in the agreement, along with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Palm Beach County.

Beach management projects are performed to protect upland properties from being damaged by surf. But they can alter the habitats that nesting turtles and shorebirds depend upon, Trindell said.

Sea turtles return from their feeding grounds in the Bahamas to nest on local beaches each year. But they sometimes encounter changed conditions because of erosion or sand nourishment projects, she said.

Beach construction is allowed during the first two months of turtle nesting season, from March 1 through April 30. But the town is required to monitor for turtle-nesting activity, and work is temporarily halted if such activity is discovered, Trindell said.

Nests that are detected in sand-nourished areas are marked. Those found where sand has not yet been deposited are relocated by a marine turtle permit holder to a protected area so the beach work can continue, she said.

Beach construction is not permitted after May 1, when turtle nesting activity begins to accelerate. Exceptions are sometimes allowed, but only with the approval of the federal government and in coordination with environmental agencies, Trindell said.

Renourished beaches create more habitat for the turtles and their nests tend to do well there, Trindell said. But, for reasons not fully understood, the turtles often leave those beaches without nesting there.

At its Aug. 8 meeting, the Town Council decided to step up efforts to protect the turtles and their nests. The town decided to install signs at beach access points and mail letters to property owners reminding them about the lights-out rule and informing them of activities that are harmful to nesting sea turtles, eggs, and hatchlings.

Public Works Director Paul Brazil said code enforcement officers monitor town beaches for lighting violations, but enforcement presents a challenge every year.

Anyone who sees a violation should call the Palm Beach Police Department at 561-838-5454, Brazil said.

Perretta said coastal lighting is problematic throughout Florida because the state’s shoreline is so highly developed.

“Lighting is the number-one impact for sea turtles,” she said. “It’s something that we have to mitigate and manage. But the Town of Palm Beach has a very good program. There are some communities that don’t have anything at all.”

If possible, beachfront residents should do without lighting that is visible from the beach during nesting season, Perretta said. If the lighting is needed for safety, the property owner should use a directional fixture so the light doesn’t illuminate the shore.

Brazil said questions have been also raised about the impact of town beach cleaning, which involves the use of a tractor, during nesting season. Sea turtle monitors clear a path for the tractors every day, he said. East of the mean high tide line, the monitors inspect the area for hatchlings and, if any are found, remove them before cleaning occurs.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the most common threats to sea turtles include habitat encroachment, illegal harvesting, and pollution, including floating plastics that the turtles ingest when mistaking them for food.

Globally, another major threat to the turtles is commercial fishing, by longline or trawl, which is estimated to kill or injure thousands of the animals each year in U.S. and international waters, according to the Sea Turtle Conservancy.

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