Tropical Storm Debby did more than just wipe some of Pinellas County's beaches off the map. The storm's pounding waves also destroyed scores of sea turtle nests, potentially ruining what had been a record-breaking nesting season.
"Obviously there's a lot of devastation," said David Yates of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which coordinates sea turtle nesting surveys on most of Pinellas' beaches. "We were having the best year in 15 years, and now we've had a substantial washing away."
Sea turtle guardians still are compiling the numbers to chart the losses, but early estimates are that they will be large. Fort De Soto Park supervisor Jim Wilson figures about one-third of the nests there were wiped out.
David Godfrey of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the world's oldest sea turtle research and conservation group, said that along the gulf coast up to the Panhandle, "so far we're hearing that as many as half or more were lost."
However, state sea turtle biologist Anne Meylan said those estimates may be based on the loss of nest markers, not the nests.
"Losing your stakes isn't the same thing as losing the nests," noted Meylan, who works for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. As a result, she said, "It's premature to have any estimate of an impact."
She also pointed out that several months still remain in turtle nesting season, so, "We still have time to make up any losses."
From May until September, thousands of female sea turtles — loggerheads and other species — crawl up on Florida beaches, dig a hole and drop in a clutch of eggs, then cover it back up and swim away.
The turtles that lay the eggs are returning to the beaches where they themselves hatched out some 30 years before.
Until this week, volunteers roving along the state's beaches were reporting record high nest numbers, Godfrey said. And the nesting had begun earlier than usual, too, he said.
But then Debby arrived, producing record rainfall and pounding waves that washed away beaches, as well as the nests beneath them.
"Up to that point, we were way ahead of last year," Meylan said.
South of the Tampa Bay area, researchers from Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota checking on the 1,367 nests they had marked before the storm between Longboat Key and Venice found markers remained for only 244 nests. That means as many as 82 percent of local nests lost the yellow stakes placed for identification — although it does not necessarily mean the nests are gone.
State biologists have been charting sea turtle nesting for more than 20 years. During that time, the nesting of loggerheads — the most common sea turtle species, but still rare enough to be classified as "threatened" — has been going downhill. The decline has been steepest since a high of 59,918 nests were counted in 1998.
Last year, however, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission documented a record-high nest count for green turtles. Leatherback turtles also had a high number of nests. Loggerhead nesting was close to its five-year average.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]