Life isn’t easy for these beloved creatures

But rare sea turtles could be coming back


Sea turtles, so admired and loved by so many people, have been on the decline for decades, scientists say. But they are making a comeback.

Conservation groups have been working to protect nesting mother turtles and their fledglings as they hatch, and the number of sea turtles is rising.

Surveys show annual increases of as much as 16 percent in the number of turtles on some beaches in South Florida, said Larry B. Crowder, the director of the Duke University Center for Marine Conservation in Beaufort, N.C.

Perhaps 68,000 loggerhead turtles and about 200 leatherback turtles dig holes on Florida beaches and lay eggs in the pits every year, experts say. These are the most common sea turtles in Florida waters. They are endangered and protected by federal law.

Leatherback turtles are among the largest and, in rare cases, can grow to as much as eight feet in diameter. The Kemp’s ridley and olive ridley turtles are among the smallest. Green turtles, hawksbill turtles and loggerhead turtles are somewhere in between in size.

Florida Power & Light, the main utility company in Florida, has sponsored research on the turtles. About 90 per cent of the loggerhead nests found in the United States are in Florida, according to a Florida Power & Light report.

Florida’s East Coast, from New Smyrna Beach south to Boca Raton, is where more than 80 percent of the nesting takes place, the report said.

Each year, thousands of female sea turtles return to their birthplaces on Florida beaches to make their nests. In 1980, one of 100 sea turtles survived from hatching to adulthood, according to the report created for Florida Power & Light by Paul Raymond, an expert on turtles at the University of Florida.

Electric lights along highways and beach fronts are a big problem for sea turtles. When baby turtles hatch, they often move toward the bright lights instead of the ocean. Sometimes they get crushed by cars. Sometimes raccoons and birds eat them. Many die.

“On the brightly lit and developed beaches of Broward County in South Florida, hatchlings are seldom successful in their attempt to find the sea,” the Florida Power & Light report said.

With so much building of houses and hotels and businesses along Florida’s coasts, there are fewer and fewer places for sea turtles to nest.

Increasingly, volunteers are turning out to work with scientists to save the turtles. The work is overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To protect young sea turtles, nets sometimes have been stretched over their nests.

The turtles can get out, but raccoons and crabs have a harder time getting at them in the nest. Raccoons and birds especially like turtle eggs.

“Turtles are important to Florida,” said Andrew Carter, who lives in Coral Gables and works with the Helping Sea Turtles conservation program. And, he said, the coasts of Florida are important to the turtles. “If humans are upsetting this balance, humans need to help put it back in order.”

Turtles nest mainly in the summer, experts say, and they nest once every year or two.

Maria Sider, a zoologist at Zoo Miami, said she considers all sea turtles endangered, even though some turtles “may only be listed as vulnerable or threatened.”

The main reason for their decline, she said, is the persistent drive to turn natural lands into places for homes, shopping malls, roads and parking lots.

Grown-up turtles have their own problems. One is getting caught in commercial fishing nets. Turtles that live on land are sometimes shot by hunters. Some turtles, especially the hawksbill and alligator snapping turtles, are killed for their colorful shells.

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