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Uproar over sea turtle nest monitoring in Florida is over, state says

Joe Widlansky stakes off the first turtle nest of the season. Early Tuesday morning sea turtle nesting monitors with Sea Turtle Trackers found the first loggerhead sea turtle nest of the nesting season on Pass-a-Grille Beach. Overnight the sea turtle crawled out of the Gulf of Mexico and up about a 150 feet of beach before digging a nest and laying her eggs next to some low dunes. Joe Widlansky with Sea Turtle Trackers and some volunteers staked off the nest site to protect it and took measurements for records. "They love this beach, absolutely love this beach and I hope for a lot more nests this year on this beach," said Widlansky about the area from Pass-a-Grille Beach to St. Pete Beach. "We had 70 last year on this beach so i'm hoping for the same or more this year," said Widlansky. "Always a good day that first nest of the season day." (JIM DAMASKE | Times)
Published May 10, 2018

From May through October, thousands of female sea turtles swim up to Florida's beaches, climb up to a dry spot, dig a hole and lay scores of golf-ball-sized eggs. Then they cover up the hole, drag themselves back into the surf and swim away.

All over the state, trained volunteers go out every morning just before sunrise to look for the drag marks and post markers around the nests so no one disturbs them before the eggs hatch. Surveying the nests does more than just collect scientific data. The work of the volunteers protects the nests from harm.

Last year, controversy erupted in the middle of nesting season, throwing into jeopardy the monitoring program for North Pinellas. Turtle experts said they had never seen anything like it.

This year, things have settled down considerably, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"At this time there are no problems with the Pinellas County sea turtle nesting survey programs," the commission's Robbin Trindell said in an email.

Last summer there were only two people licensed by the state to patrol the beaches, and all the volunteers worked under them. Laura Wright, who worked for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, was in charge of the northern and mid county beaches. Bruno Falkenstein, owner of the Hurricane Restaurant in Pass-a-Grille, was in charge of the volunteers patrolling the southern part of the county.

But in June, aquarium CEO David Yates abruptly fired Wright, who has a master's degree in marine biology and has been working with sea turtles since 2001. Neither of them would say what happened.

As a result, the aquarium lost the only person licensed to monitor local sea turtles, as well as the volunteers under her. Meanwhile, Wright lost access to the aquarium's resources, such as nest-tagging supplies and all-terrain vehicles to quickly travel from nest to nest.

This year there are three licenses, Trindell said. Wright, now heading up her own organization, holds the one for mid Pinellas beaches, about 8 miles. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is in charge of the north Pinellas beaches, about 13 miles. Falkenstein is still in charge of the ones at St. Pete Beach, about 4 miles.

Wright did not respond to calls seeking comment. Falkenstein, who heads up a group called Sea Turtle Trackers, said this year's arrangement is "wonderful," and added that if there are any problems, "our group will jump through hoops, bells and whistles to help them out."

Lindsey Flynn, who now supervises sea turtle conservation programs for the aquarium, said that because all sea turtles are classified as either endangered or threatened, the volunteers' monitoring of the nests is of vital importance.

Part of the problem is shooing away people who don't understand why the nests are marked off with stakes, she said.

"Most of the time we only see people using them as a clothes rack and putting towels on the stakes," said Flynn, who has a master's degree in marine science. "Sometimes little kids will walk under the tape."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com. Follow @tromcmanus. Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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