Sea turtles are an essential aspect of the beaches along the Florida coast’s natural environment. The animals play important roles in the ecosystem’s food web and habitat structure but are extremely vulnerable to environmental changes and human threats.
A recent article published in the Saint Augustine Record1 shined a light on the declining sea turtle nesting statistics in Saint Johns County. The results of a survey performed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that only “about 91,400 loggerhead nests were found, down about 5,000 nests from the previous year.” This seems to be a common trend throughout Florida, as nesting sites have been on the decline since their highest levels in 2016.
While disconcerting to many, this decline is not the first time, or lowest, turtle populations have dropped within our area. Many experts, such as Catherine Eastman from the University of Florida, urge citizens to remember that Saint Johns County’s role in the overall population is a small, but important, one. The turtles that reside in the area add to the maintenance of biodiversity among the larger population. Within the county, the green turtle population dipped from fifty-two nests to sixteen, while the leatherback rose from seven to twelve. The leatherback turtle population is a source of hope for Floridians, as the numbers continue to rise year after year.
Another factor to consider is the less than favorable conditions of our beaches to support turtle populations. The composition of the sand is hardly packed and unable to properly support an abundance of nesting sites. This is in part due to the many re nourishment efforts that were, and still are, taking place within the area in the wake of subsequent natural disasters. Ponte Vedra, Saint Augustine, and Vilano beaches experienced massive amounts of erosion and sand loss, which would contribute to a lack of available habitat for turtles to nest. As communities fought for their own renourishment projects, the turtle population was left to suffer in the existing damage.
When assessed with these causes and trends in mind, there is less concern about the fall in numbers within our area. In many other counties, numbers continue to rise, and sources of declines are easily identified. This is not to say that citizens and local governments cannot do more to ensure the stability of their turtle populations.2 During the nesting season, people can turn off their beach front lighting that may disorient the animals, remove objects (chairs, tents, toys) from the beach area that may block the paths of hatchlings to the water, refrain from beach-front fires that hatchlings can crawl into, and leave turtles and their tracks undisturbed. In the off season as well, people should avoid littering on the beach, utilize boardwalks and approved paths instead of disrupting the natural vegetation and dunes, and be mindful when boating. The United States Endangered Species Act protects almost all sea turtle species and penalizes the intentional harming or entrapment of the animals.
With these statistics and measures in mind, Saint Johns County can actively work towards aiding its beach habitats and turtle population. All hope is not lost for the animals. They simply require extra precaution and intentional protection efforts. As Saint Johns County rebuilds, so can the dwindling turtle population.
1 Korfhage, Stuart. “Sea Turtle Nesting Down in Florida in 2018.” Saint Augustine Record. 14 February 2019. Accessed 14 February 2019.
2 “You Can Help Protect Sea Turtles.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. July 2009. Accessed 14 February 2019.