FORT DE SOTO
This evening, shortly after sunset, Jim Wilson plans to dig a hole in the sand and look for stragglers in nest No. 22.
"The hatchlings came out of here like gangbusters a couple of nights ago," said Wilson who oversees Fort De Soto County Park's operations. "We call it a jailbreak."
Sea turtles nest on beaches from May through September. The typical loggerhead will lay 80 to 120 eggs every two or three years in a hole about 18 inches deep. The turtles take about two months to hatch, and when they do, a few often get trapped inside the nest.
"We wait 72 hours after the initial hatching, then go in and see if there are any that need a little help," Wilson said. "Sometimes, especially up in the dunes, they get trapped in the roots of the grass."
Wilson, who has a special permit to work with sea turtles, then lets the hatchlings crawl toward the water on their own.
"We try to keep it as natural as possible," Wilson said. "That is the only way they will know how to come back to this same beach some day."
The babies, usually less than 2 inches in length, have about a 1-in-1,000 chance of surviving the hazardous trek to the water, since the young are easy pickings for birds, crabs, raccoons and other predators. Then, at sea, they must contend with hungry fish. Even a full-grown loggerhead of more than 200 pounds can become shark food.
Another enemy is man. Turtles are a traditional food source throughout the Caribbean. The eggs are prized in many cultures as an aphrodisiac. Thousands of the reptiles also die each year as a result of commercial fishing.
For years, recreational anglers and conservationists charged that longlines associated with the grouper and shark fisheries killed indiscriminately, catching everything from undersized grouper to protected species such as loggerhead sea turtles.
But until recently, there was little data to support those charges. That changed late last year. In 2006, the National Marine Fisheries Service began placing official observers aboard longline vessels used in fishing for sharks and grouper. During the study, which lasted a year and a half, federal observers documented numerous sea turtle deaths.
Hope on the horizon
Federal regulators acted swiftly and shut down longline fishing in June. Two weeks ago, after months of debate, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted to cut the commercial longline fleet in half, allowing only the most successful boats to keep fishing for grouper.
Under the new regulations, the long-liners will also be forced to reduce the number of hooks used and fish only in deep water, where sea turtles are less likely to feed, from June through August.
Environmentalists praised the council's action. Sea turtle advocates hope the move will help reverse a general downward trend in sea turtle nesting.
Florida is one of the top sea turtle nesting areas in the world. While the bulk of the nesting occurs on the east coast, undeveloped areas on the gulf coast, such as Fort De Soto, are also prime sea turtle habitat.
The county park has 4 miles of natural beach and each mile has produced nine nests so far this season. "And those nests have a 70 to 90 percent hatching rate," Wilson said.