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Florida, USA

David Godfrey


David Godfrey, Caribbean Conservation Corporation

One of the things that is really a concern to those of us in Florida is how sea level rise and global warming are going to impact turtle nesting beaches.

When you do things like build sea walls on the beach you’re drawing a line in the sand and saying, this is where the edge of the beach can come to, and everything in front is available to turtles, but everything behind is locked up for homes or swimming pools or parking lots or roads. That’s just not going to work over the long term.

I’m optimistic that people care and they’re willing to do what it takes to save turtles. We just need to make sure that our politicians, our decision makers at the national, state, and local level realize that people care enough to make hard decisions to save turtles.

Sea turtles have been wandering the oceans of the world for millions years. They have survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. They were there at the dawn of civilization. But now, like most other marine animals, sea turtles are desperately trying to survive the perils of the industrial age.

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Each year hundreds of thousands are drowned in fishing nets or killed as bycatch by the long-line fishing industry. This has put the entire species on the brink of extinction. Helping to reverse the trend is Llew Ehrhart, a biology professor at the University of Central Florida. He and a cadre of student volunteers are developing ways to monitor and protect these ancient creatures. Today their mission is to set drift nets to capture and study loggerhead turtles.

Lew Ehrhart, sea turtle biologist

Llew Ehrhart, sea turtle biologist

As part of his research, Ehrhart and his team gently remove loggerhead turtles from the water and quickly transfer them to a larger boat. Then they are tagged, measured, and weighed, while blood and skin samples are also taken. When the work is done, the turtles are quickly returned to the open waters.

“The blood sample is used for DNA genetic work,” explains Ehrhart. “We’re interested in the long-term trend in marine turtle abundance. It’s impossible to manage the recovery of an endangered species if you don’t do that.”

“These sea turtles don't mature until they're 25 or maybe even 30 years. They don't even start to breed and we know they breed for at least 20 years, maybe a lot longer than that.”

For thousands of years, the shoreline at Melbourne Beach, Florida has offered loggerhead turtles a secure, isolated nesting site. Today the turtles must share their ancestral breeding grounds with tourists. Despite this apparent conflict of interest, scientists and community activists have found a way to make things work between turtles and tourists, and Melbourne Beach has become an environmental success story.

Scattered all along the sand dunes, even between beach chairs and blankets, are clearly marked sea turtle nesting sites, strong symbols of a community's decision to protect and coexist with an endangered species. And when the sun goes down, Melbourne Beach becomes the domain of these ancient mariners.

That's when Llew Ehrhart's team goes back to work, measuring, tagging and counting turtles. In about 30 minutes this loggerhead will lay just over 100 eggs. Though only one in ten thousand will reach maturity, this survival rate is enough for the continuation of the local population. It's high enough because along this stretch of beach, each year the loggerheads will lay over two million eggs. When the turtle is finished, she covers her clutch with sand and slowly makes her way back into the ocean.

“The sea turtle nesting habitat is between the jaws of a vise – the jaw on the right is the rising sea level, the vise on the left is the constant effort to build higher and higher sea walls and to hold out the sea.”

Llew Ehrhart, sea turtle biologist

Melbourne Beach, Florida

Melbourne Beach, Florida

The good news is that in recent years the population of turtles along Melbourne Beach has nearly doubled. However there may be a new and unexpected twist to the story. In 30 years, when loggerhead hatchlings return to reproduce, will the nesting beaches of Florida still be there?

Today scientists are telling us that climate change and sea level rise could be responsible for the extinction of not only sea turtles, but thousands of other marine species.

About ten weeks after the eggs are laid, hatchlings begin their march to the sea. Once swept away with the tide, the only ones that will ever again touch land are adult females.The question is, when they return to nest in thirty years, will Melbourne Beach be underwater?


Read more about The State of the Ocean's Animals:
Introduction | Antarctica | China | Florida | Japan | Monterey | Pacific Northwest


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