As Hurricane Irma raged through Florida it caused a great deal of destruction. Now it seems the storm swept away thousands of nests of endangered sea turtles, drastically limiting their breeding success.
Ironically, 2017 had been a great year for nesting sea turtles, with green turtles laying a record 15,744 nests in Florida’s Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. But unfortunately, the wrath of Hurricane Irma swept sand away, exposing carefully buried eggs and removing some nests altogether, according to research from the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) Marine Turtle Research Group.
Roughly 8,830 green turtle nests in the refuge were taken by the storm, that's more than half (56 percent). An estimated 24 percent of loggerhead nests were also lost.
Green turtles lay their nests later in the year than other species, so they were most severely affected. Meanwhile, the majority of the 9,690 loggerhead nests laid in the refuge this year had already hatched before Hurricane Irma hit. More than 2,000 loggerhead nests were still ruined, though.
Luckily, all the nests of another species, the leatherback turtle, had hatched before the storm arrived.
Both loggerhead and green turtles are listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act, and the majority of their nests in the US are found in Florida. The area in the wildlife refuge monitored during the research is home to roughly a third of all the green turtle nests in the Florida, so Hurricane Irma really took its toll.
“Last year with Hurricane Matthew, we lucked out because it was a low green turtle year,” said Kate Mansfield, director of the UCF Marine Turtle Research Group, in a statement. “This year was an extraordinarily exciting year for green turtle nesting, breaking all previous records within the refuge and continuing the conservation success story for the species. Unfortunately, we had another big hurricane this year, highlighting the need for continued conservation efforts in the area.”
However, there has been a little good news following the storm. Adult green and loggerhead turtles have managed to come ashore and create new nests since the hurricane. Within the monitored reserve, 466 new green turtle nests and eight new loggerhead nests have been laid. Meanwhile, on other beaches monitored by the UCF, 72 new green turtle nests and three loggerhead nests have been found.
Yet, these new nests still face other dangers.
“Green turtles are still nesting, but recent extremely high tides have likely wiped out many of those new nests, too,” said Erin Seney, an assistant research scientist with the UCF group. “The good news is that the nesting habits of sea turtles do protect them from large-scale nest loss and make them more resilient to this kind of event. They lay multiple nests per nesting season, roughly every other year for 30 years or more.”