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Here's how to protect eggs during Florida's sea turtle nesting season

Turtle hatchlings instinctively aim for the sea.

We may be best known for our alligators, but visitors and locals alike are often surprised to learn that more than 90 percent of the nation’s sea turtle nests are laid in Florida.

During the 2021 season, Indian River County’s more than 22 miles of beaches sheltered 5,629 loggerhead nests, 1,514 green turtle nests, and 24 leatherback nests.

The official sea turtle nesting season in Indian River County occurs between March 1 and October 31. During this period, loggerhead, green, and leatherback sea turtles emerge from the ocean and search for a suitable nest location. Once found, the female turtle digs a hole, deposits 100 to 150 eggs, then covers the nest with sand. The eggs incubate for about 65 days and then the hatchling sea turtles break out and scamper toward the waves. It’s a brutal and unforgiving world for the hatchlings: Only about one of every 1,000 hatchlings will reach adulthood. You help improve the hatchlings’ odds by following this advice:

·         If you are lucky enough to see a sea turtle, refrain from using flash photography or touching the animal. Sea turtles scare easily. Keep a safe distance of 10 feet and remain behind the animal or else she may spook and return the ocean.

·         Touching or handling protected species (including sea turtles and their eggs) without a permit is against the law. If you observe sick or injured animals, or are aware of people harassing sea turtles, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) Hotline at 1-888-404-3922.

·         Please do not disturb tracks left by turtles. Biologists rely on these markings to identify the species of turtle and to find and mark the nests. It is important to know that not all nests will be marked with stakes and flagging, only about 10 percent of the nests laid will be marked for conservation research purposes. The unmarked nests will incubate on their own.

·         Properly disposing of trash and recycling can help marine life. However, one aspect most people do not consider is “How sustainable is the fish we eat?” Making smart consumer choices have an indirect impact on sea turtles and other marine life.

·         Shut off the lights! Artificial lights — including flashlights, cell phones, and fires — are detrimental to sea turtles. Beaches with lights discourage adult turtles from laying nests and cause hatchlings to crawl the wrong direction and perish. Indian River County adopted regulations that provide protections to sea turtles and restrict beachfront lighting from March 1st to October 31st. Section 932.09 of the County Code of Ordinances (Ord. No. 90-16) set forth parameters for artificial lighting, including the following requirements:

“… Floodlights shall be prohibited… pole lights shall be shielded… Low-profile downward directed luminaries, with shields if necessary, shall be used in parking lots, and such lighting shall be positioned so that no light directly or indirectly illuminates the beach…. Lights illuminating buildings or associated grounds for decorative or recreational purposes shall be shielded or screened such that they do not directly or indirectly illuminate the beach, or turned off after 9:00 p.m. during the period from March 1 to October 31 of each year.”

It takes about 25 to 30 years for a turtle to grow to a reproductive size. Once ready, the females return to the same beaches they hatched from. Since the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, sea turtle populations have started to recover but still have a long road ahead before we see stable population numbers.

Questions? Contact Steven Hitt, Indian River County’s Principal Environmental Planner at 772-226-1240, or call Indian River County’s Coastal Engineering Division at (772) 226-1648. We would be happy to give a presentation to your Association about sea turtle conservation, beach nourishment, or lagoon management efforts.