FLORIDA–(ENEWSPF)–August 16, 2010. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), working with partners from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), announced Thursday that sea turtle nests on the eastern portion of Florida Panhandle beaches would no longer be excavated and transported to the Atlantic coast.
Biologists determined that the risks to hatchlings emerging from beaches and entering waters off the coast of Franklin and Gulf counties have diminished significantly. However, nest excavations will continue west of the St. Joseph Peninsula pending completion of additional risk assessments in those areas. The nest relocations began in June to protect sea turtle hatchlings from potential impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“The decision to move nests was made after careful consideration, and the decision to let the nests remain where they are required the same evaluation and weighing of the information,” said Kipp Frohlich, leader of the FWC’s Imperiled Species Section. “Just as we established protocols to move the nests, we developed a set of criteria to help us determine when it would be appropriate to discontinue or scale back nest relocations.”
The FWC conducted aerial flights over the region to locate sargassum, the floating seaweed that provides the primary habitat for the hatchlings. An FWC vessel took biologists offshore to evaluate and sample the sargussum, and, after careful examination, they discovered no visible signs of oil.
“The patches of sargassum we examined contained abundant life, including important prey species for sea turtle hatchlings,” said FWC biologist Dr. Robbin Trindell. “It is very good habitat for sea turtle hatchlings.”
Greg Holder, FWC assistant executive director, directed staff to discontinue excavating any nests east of St. Joseph Peninsula in Northwest Florida, while continuing to assess other areas of Florida’s Gulf coast to determine if nests in other counties can be left to emerge naturally.
Soon after the April 20 disaster, biologists and managers from state and federal agencies began planning for the worst-case scenario.
“The prospect of hatchings emerging onto a heavily oiled beach or entering a near-shore oil slick was unacceptable” Frohlich said. “That led to the difficult decision to move all nests in this area. Fortunately, conditions have improved in some areas and some of the beaches were spared, and we can now begin to allow the nests to hatch naturally in many areas.”
As of Aug. 11, 209 nests have been excavated along the Northwest Florida coast, with 148 of the nests coming from Gulf and Franklin counties. The eggs were carefully placed in specially prepared coolers and driven by FedEx trucks to Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s east coast. The coolers remain in a climate-controlled building and are monitored by Innovative Health Application biologists until the hatchlings emerge. Since July 10, more than 6,000 hatchlings – from nests collected from Northwest Florida and Alabama beaches – have been released into the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the nests are from loggerhead sea turtles, which are a threatened species. A few endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle and green sea turtle nests also have been relocated.
Nests on Bald Point, Alligator Point, Dog Island, St. George Island, Little St. George Island, St. Vincent’s Island and St. Joseph Peninsula will be left in place, allowing the hatchlings to emerge naturally. Nests to the west are still being moved while officials complete their evaluation. Hatchlings may be at risk in the western Panhandle from beach-cleaning operations, especially those conducted at night. Officials are considering other precautions they could take to safeguard the hatchlings if the nests are left in place on those beaches. Nearly 400 nests remain on Florida’s northwest beaches, and females will continue to come ashore to lay eggs through the rest of August.
For more information on the sea turtle nest relocation, go to www.fws.gov/northflorida. To report sightings of oiled wildlife, call 866-557-1401. For more information on sea turtle conservation, visit MyFWC.com/SeaTurtle.