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Loggerhead baby boom heartens scientists

ST. PETERSBURG — After years of gloomy news for loggerhead turtles, there's a sign of hope for the world-roaming reptiles.

Experts already have seen more loggerhead nests on several Pinellas beaches this year than all of last year — and the nesting season has at least another month to go. A state scientist says she has heard similar reports from other sites around Florida.

That's welcome news for the threatened turtles, but experts say it's too early to declare victory.

"It's unlikely that we're going to bounce back to 1990s levels," said Anne Meylan, research administrator at the state Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. "But we're going to be very happy for any increase we see."

With its long beaches, Pinellas is prime territory for loggerhead turtle nesting in the Tampa Bay area.

At Fort De Soto Park on the southern tip of the county, 31 loggerhead nests have been discovered this season, which exceeds the 20 found all last year and the 26 found in 2006. The record was 59 nests in 2000, said park district supervisor Bob Browning.

"We still have like five or six weeks left. So I'm looking for a banner year," Browning said.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium searches for nests from parts of St. Pete Beach to the north end of Clearwater Beach, and has found 78 so far. That's a big improvement over the 38 nests found last year, but still a ways away from the more than 100 that come in an average year, said Mike Anderson, the aquarium's director of sea turtle nesting.

"Our numbers have more than doubled since last year, and we're not done yet," Anderson said. "We're just hoping to see continuing increases."

Loggerhead turtles are remarkable creatures that swim from Florida to as far as the Azores and the Mediterranean Sea and live to be 60 or more. Females do not reach sexual maturity until about age 30. When it's time to lay eggs, they crawl onto beaches and bury the eggs in the sand, usually to the same area where they were born.

Humans sometimes hand-carry the hatchlings to the sea to help them because they are otherwise vulnerable to prey or heading the wrong way. The hatchlings' instinct tells them to follow the bright light of the moon and stars and enter the sea. But sometimes the bright light of condos and street lamps confuses them and leads them onto asphalt.

After the nesting season ends in August and officials compile the data, scientists will know just how good a year this turned out to be.

But it will be hard to make up for the decline of the past decade or so, blamed largely on commercial fishing. A state index of nesting sites shows the number of loggerhead nests dropped virtually in half from 1998 to last year. Meylan said those carefully compiled figures don't account for every beach, but the trend — a dramatic decline — is considered accurate. Loggerheads are classified as a "threatened" species.

"We've sort of been kicked in the gut the last eight, nine years," said David Godfrey of the Caribbean Conservation Corp. "It's a depressing thing to watch." Reports of an uptick this year, he said, "at least provides a ray of hope."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

About loggerhead turtles

• Florida's most common sea turtle, though classified as a threatened species.

• Adults can weigh 200 to 350 pounds and can reach 3 feet in length.

• In the United States, 90 percent of all loggerheads nest in Florida. Females return to their nesting beach every two or more years. There, they generally lay four to seven nests, one about every 14 days. Each nest contains on average of 100 to 126 eggs that hatch in about 60 days.

• Biologists estimate only one of 1,000 hatchlings lives to sexual maturity.

To help, don't help

How to help protect sea turtles during nesting season, which is May 1 to Aug. 31:

• The eggs hatch between July 1 and Oct. 31. It's illegal to touch or pick up a hatchling.

• After hatching, it is normal for turtles to move slowly. Don't try to help them.

• Do not use a flashlight, a camera with a flash or light a fire on the beach at night during nesting season.

• If you live on the beach, shut off outside lights, draw drapes closed at night and avoid using lamps on the beach.

• To report a sea turtle injury or sighting, call the Clearwater Marine Aquarium toll-free at 1-888-239-9414, ext. 224.

Loggerhead baby boom heartens scientists 07/14/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 8:33pm]
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