At nature's command, a leatherback turtle emerges from the Atlantic and driven by instinct, drifts across the Georgia sand, ultimately advancing the cycle of life. With this moment, nesting season has begun for the majestic sea turtles that have chosen to grace Georgia's coastline with their offspring.
The endangered leatherback turtle nest was located in Brunswick the morning of May 3, and was reported with great excitement and optimism, as the species has suffered greatly at the expense of its meat and eggs, as well as commonly falling victim to the unforgiving nets of fisherman.
Annual nesting season for sea turtles begins in May and extends through the month of September, with leatherbacks typically breaching the shore earlier than species like the loggerhead. The leatherback breed is known to nest five to seven times on average in the duration of one nesting season, but tragically, the nesting population has declined to one percent of its size since the 1980s. Additionally, leatherbacks traditionally nest in tropical waters, but are now expanding their range to the warming waters off the Atlantic coast, proving a delight for daily survey crews. In 2009, a record seven leatherback nests were documented on Georgia's coast, and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center
and Department of Natural Resources
(DNR) are anticipating improvements in last year's number of documented nests in hopes that populations will continue to stabilize.
Five species of sea turtles are found in the waters off the Georgia coast: loggerhead
and Kemp's ridley
. Fortunately, all noted species are protected by state and federal law. However, the loggerhead species, the most routinely found nest on the beaches of Georgia, may soon find a place on the endangered species list. In 2009, 995 loggerhead nests were found, a dramatic decrease from the record 1,646 nests documented in the previous year. In regards to the progress of the current season, two loggerhead nests were discovered on St. Catherines and Cumberland Islands during early morning beach patrols last week, followed by 11 more discoveries down the coast towards Ossabaw.
Both the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and the DNR are closely monitoring the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, as the loop current could drag the oil slick through the Florida Keys and inevitably up the Eastern seaboard, further threatening the fragile hatchlings. Sea Turtle Center and DNR employees will undergo hazardous material training in the event that suffering turtles are brought to the center for rehabilitation. Both Center and DNR employees are well versed in handling turtles in distress, so this training will merely add to their expertise. Turtle populations off the Gulf Coast are already facing challenges
, as they spend their entire life cycles in the Gulf Coast waters. So far, 156 sea turtle deaths have been documented as the result of the BP oil spill.
Outside of the potential threat of the Gulf oil slick, Georgia's turtle populations are dramatically impaired by two other major issues: the Asian food market and local boat traffic. In fact, due greatly in part to boats in the area, tourist-haven Tybee Island has yet to see a single turtle nest this year. Sadly, Maria Procopio of the Tybee Island Marine Science Center helped recover the body of a loggerhead found floating by Cockspur Lighthouse, eventually dying of serious propeller wounds. This tragedy has been followed by 24 other cases of stranded turtles off the coast of Georgia this year alone, including a female laden with hatchlings, cause of death numerous propeller wounds.
The second crime haunting Georgia's sea turtle populations: the export of freshwater turtles to China. The overharvesting of turtles in Asia has caused populations to dwindle to extinction, and therefore, turtles are imported from other countries, most notably the United States. Georgia doesn't currently regulate fresh turtle trapping, leading to the export of more than 700,000 turtles in 2008. The turtles are then used for medicines or made into turtle soup, where they are dropped into pots of boiling water ... alive.
As I have noted in prior reports and will continue to stress, it is our duty as informed citizens to protect both wildlife and the environment and loudly voice our opinions when either is made to suffer at the hands of humans. Review the tips and contact information below so that you may take action to help in the efforts to protect the sea turtles. Please also remember that generous donations further enable organizations to rescue, rehabilitate and stabilize sea turtle populations.
How beachgoers can help sea turtles
Georgia beachgoers can help protect nesting and hatching sea turtles by following these precautions, state wildlife biologists said:
• Don't use lights on the beach at night.
• Never disturb a turtle that is crawling to or from the sea.
• Once a turtle has started nesting, observe her only from a distance.
• Don't shine lights in a sea turtle's eyes or use flash photography.
• Don't touch or disturb nests or hatchlings.
• Report a dead or injured turtle, or sea turtle harassment by calling (800) 2-SAVE-ME. If the sea turtle is tagged, include the tag color and number in the report if possible.
Source: Georgia Department of Natural Resources
Donate or adopt a sea turtle
For more information on how to prevent Georgia's turtles from winding up in Asian soup-pots, contact the Sierra Club's Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org
or join Georgia Sierra Club's Centennial Group's Conservation Committee to find out how you can help.