Florida a top spot for nesting loggerheads
By Brianna Forte
While the rest of Florida may take pride in their riveting theme parks and beautiful palm trees, here in Brevard County we can take pride in the importance of our beaches in the life cycle of loggerhead sea turtles. In fact, the 20-mile stretch of land between Melbourne Beach and Wabasso Beach, known as the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, is one of the main nesting sites for loggerhead sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere.
The loggerhead sea turtle, Caretta caretta, is named for its extremely large head that supports its strong jaws. This crushing dentition is especially important as it enables loggerheads to eat prey with hard shells such as whelks, conchs, and other crustaceans, along with fish.
The loggerhead sea turtle occurs throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, and the majority of nesting takes place in Oman, the United States, and Australia.
Female loggerheads mature when they are about 35 years old, and once they reach sexual maturity, they reproduce every two to three years. Females will mate in the offshore coastal waters and then return to the same region where they hatched to lay their eggs. The nesting season for loggerheads starts in April, ends in September, and peaks in June. A female can lay anywhere between three to six nests per season, with an average of 100 to 120 eggs in each nest.
In the United States, loggerheads nest along the Atlantic coast in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The beaches in Southern Florida are especially important for loggerhead nesting, as they are one of two sites in the world that has more than 10,000 females nesting per year (the other site is Oman).
Sea turtle nesting has been monitored at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge for more than 30 years. Between 1982 and 2012 an estimated 358,243 nests were deposited by loggerheads in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, according to a research article titled “Long-Term Trends in Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) Nesting and Reproductive Success at an Important Western Atlantic Rookery” by Llewellyn Ehrhart, William Redfoot, Dean Bagley, and Katherine Mansfield. The Sea Turtle Conservancy cites 1998 as the record nesting year for loggerheads with an estimated nesting number of 21,543.
These numbers demonstrate just how important our beaches are for the nesting of loggerhead sea turtles. While the subpopulation of loggerheads that nests in Central and South Florida is one of the largest in the world, according to Oceana, the population has declined by more than 40 percent in the past decade. In 1978, the loggerhead sea turtle was listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. This designation means loggerheads are likely to become endangered, or in danger of extinction, within the foreseeable future.
The two major threats to loggerhead sea turtles are bycatch and loss of nesting habitat. Loggerheads can be caught as accidental bycatch by longline fishing and shrimp trawlers, but, according to the National Wildlife Fund, this is being reduced through fishing gear modifications, changes to fishing practices, and closures of certain areas to fishing during nesting and hatching seasons.
Nesting habitat in Florida is crucial for the continuation of the loggerhead life cycle, but these sites are threatened by coastal development, nest predation, and human disturbances (such as coastal lighting and housing developments). Thankfully, the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge has been recognized as a critical habitat. While this does not solve issues such as nest predation and human disturbances, it does protect the habitat from development.
While the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, “was designated to protect habitat for what is the most significant area for loggerhead sea turtle nesting in the world, and the most significant area for green turtle nesting in North America,” it does not solve all the threats that loggerhead sea turtles face today. You can help loggerheads and sea turtles in general by raising awareness for how important Florida beaches are as nesting sites, turning your lights off in coastal towns to stop human interference during nesting season, and supporting conservation organizations that advocate for sea turtles.