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Will coronavirus beach closures help Florida sea turtles?

Probably not, experts say. Pinellas County officials plan to reopen beaches Monday.

In the search for coronavirus silver linings, people have wondered whether closures might free up sand for endangered or threatened sea turtles nesting on Florida beaches.

It’s a nice thought, turtle watchers say, but not likely.

Beachgoers in many places will return to the shore just as nesting season gets underway. In Tampa Bay, turtle time started Friday and continues through October. Pinellas County officials are set to reopen beaches Monday.

The pandemic’s effect is probably “a moot point,” said Lindsey Flynn, supervisor of the Sea Turtle Conservation Program at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Two watch groups have already started making morning passes of the water’s edge in Pinellas, looking for tread-like tracks made by pregnant mothers, chiefly loggerheads, crawling ashore. The lines sometimes point to a nest, which turtle monitors cordon off to protect the eggs.

They had not found any evidence of turtles in Pinellas earlier this week.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said: “As for quarantine impacts on sea turtle nesting, FWC is not aware of changes in animal behavior due to COVID-19.”

Humans have many ways of interrupting turtles’ natural order, from condo lights that confound an animal’s sense of direction to sand castles that stand as blockades to a turtle’s chosen path.

“You can spook a girl off pretty easy coming onto the beach to nest,” said Suzi Fox, director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch & Shorebird Monitoring.

A mother already needs to build up energy, watchers said, and if she runs into something, like a stray umbrella or tattered folding chair, she could turn around and clamber back to sea. After several failed attempts, or “false crawls,” Flynn said, a turtle might release its eggs in the water, ending any hope of hatchlings.

Turtle eggs incubate for a couple of months. When hatchlings emerge, they face the same obstacles as their mothers: holes in the sand, trash blocking their course, man-made lights steering them in the opposite direction of open water.

The thinking is that without people, turtles might have something closer to free reign to waddle across the shore. Birth is still far off, though, and turtle monitors say it’s anyone’s guess what beaches will look like in June, July or August.

The nesting season begins earlier in Southeast Florida than in many other parts of the state, but even there it’s hard to draw a connection between early eggs and empty beaches, said Kate Mansfield, director of the University of Central Florida’s Marine Turtle Research Group. Her team, she said, had spotted 16 leatherback nests and 138 loggerhead nests as of earlier this week along a section of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. Those numbers, she said, were not much different than normal. Mansfield said any nesting probably has more to do with warm water temperatures, a natural signal, than coronavirus.

Katia Gundersen of St. Pete Beach, left, talks with sea turtle monitor Joe Widlansky on Friday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

In the runup to the season, turtle watchers say they have gotten a glimpse of a different beach than they’re used to. Groups have cut down on working volunteers, directors said, and are trying to follow the best practices of social distancing.

“It’s much darker out there” without bars and businesses lit up, said “Turtle Joe” Widlansky of Sea Turtle Trackers, Inc. in southern Pinellas. “The birds are having a blast. Nobody is out there to bother them. They’re just reclaiming their little spot in the world.”

Widlansky has seen royal terns and black skimmers. Further north, Flynn said the shorebirds have seemed more relaxed, feeding on untouched wrack lines where the high tide leaves vegetation and tiny invertebrates.

In Manatee County, Fox said she has seen a bigger group of skimmers, “calm and peaceful” without crowds to disturb them. She hopes the period of ease brings more bird nests.

Much like with turtles, though, Holley Short, a stewardship project manager for Audubon Florida, said it’s too early to tell exactly how the closures are affecting birds. Animals like skimmers, she said, need space to lay eggs.

“They’re going to their usual colony sites,” she said. “They’re starting to pair up ... in layman’s terms, flirt with each other.”

Even while enjoying the sight of the flock on Anna Maria, Fox said she has wondered about rental properties and restaurants lining the shore. The symbiosis of Florida’s coast, after all, is not always entirely natural.

“I don’t know how some of these businesses are going to survive without opening up,” she said.

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