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Nesting season also marks increase in number of stranded sea turtles
May 16, 2018

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April 15 marked the official start of the 2018 sea turtle nesting season for Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation staff and volunteers. While it is an exciting time for all, the start of the nesting season also marks the beginning of an uptick in stranded sea turtles. As important as it is to protect nests on the islands, it is equally as important to collect data from stranded sea turtles. Although the situation is sad, these turtles, both dead and alive, offer incredible opportunities to obtain data on turtles that are otherwise difficult to study. Strandings encompass a wide range of species, sexes and life stages, including species that historically do not nest in large numbers in Southwest Florida. The information allows managers to better understand and mitigate the in-water threats that sea turtles face.

As of mid-May, the SCCF has documented two adult female loggerheads, four adult male loggerheads, one adult female Kemp's ridley, and nine juveniles - four greens, three Kemp's ridleys and two loggerheads. Their unique collective presence nearshore at this time of year puts these animals at greater risk for many of the common causes of strandings, including entanglement, red tide poisoning or brevetoxicosis, and accidental capture in fishing gear. However, the most common cause of sea turtle strandings in nearshore waters is boat strikes, accounting for 43 percent of strandings on Sanibel and Captiva in the last five years. Sea turtles are commonly struck as they come to the surface to breathe or bask and the damage caused by props and skegs is often fatal. Speed at impact is the most significant factor in determining life or death for a turtle, so it is recommended that boaters drive very slowly and use idle speed whenever possible within two miles of the shoreline.

Thus far in 2018, strandings on Sanibel and Captiva are on par with the count at this date for the past five years. The total strandings handled by SCCF in all of 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013 were 34, 33, 41, 34 and 33, respectively, with the vast majority of strandings occurring during the beginning of May through September - in the middle of loggerhead nesting season.

With SCCF staff and volunteers committed to nesting surveys, rapid stranding response becomes more difficult in the summer months. Effective recovery may require multiple responders and possibly even watercraft for live turtles at sea. For example, on March 18, SCCF was alerted of a stranded loggerhead in the water off of Bowman's Beach. In this instance, a boat was needed to rescue the turtle safely offshore. Graciously offering its help, SeaTow provided the means to reach the turtle, driving out and collecting the live female. Discovering another stranded turtle in the water on their way out to the first, they were able to effectively recover both turtles and even offered their assistance in transferring the loggerheads to a vehicle, where the live female was then taken to the Center for Rehabilitation of Wildlife for treatment. In the event a stranded turtle is found alive, CROW is an invaluable asset in the treatment and rehabilitation process. Combining research and rehabilitation, SCCF and CROW work collaboratively on strandings to promote thorough documentation and conservation.

In Lee County and statewide, the average number of sea turtle strandings seems to be gradually increasing. According to FWC data, the average number of strandings by this week in May for Lee County is 40.8 (2012-2017). Currently, in 2018, Lee County has 58 documented strandings. For the entire state, there are 970 documented stranded sea turtles at this time. The five-year average is 907.3 strandings. On current pace to end the year with above-average totals, the rest of 2018 is sure to be a busy time for sea turtle programs throughout Florida.

SCCF is currently on track for another year with 35-40 strandings, and staff are anticipating roughly 18-20 during the summer months. Those who own or operate a boat and would be interested in volunteering their time and effort to assist SCCF in the recovery of stranded sea turtles can contact the SCCF Wildlife & Habitat Management offices at 239-472-3984.

Jack Brzoza is a sea turtle technician with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

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