By Courtney Cox | firstname.lastname@example.org
In this year alone, sea turtle nests were at their second highest recording along Florida’s Atlantic coastline, but with the damage Hurricane Matthew left in its trail, some people have begun to raise questions as to what this could mean for the sea turtle population.
At this time there are no evident statistics on just how many nests were destroyed by the storm, but Tara Dodson, St. Johns County Habitat Conservation coordinator, has estimated that out of the 868 nests laid this year on the 40 miles of coastline that the county accounts for, only five nests may have washed out.
“Leading up to the storm a lot of our nests were already beginning to hatch anyway because it was the beginning of October and sea turtle season ends on October 31,” Dodson said. “It’s never a good time for a hurricane but in regards to nesting it came at a time in favor of the hatchlings.”
Natural dune habitat is beginning to diminish on the beaches that the sea turtles, among other indigenous species, have depended on so heavily for nesting. Sea turtles, like the native loggerheads, greens and leatherbacks, rely on these beaches to lay their eggs, however these once-flourishing habitats are now succumbed to a plague of seawalls that could be causing more female turtles to false crawl than ever before, Dodson said.
A false crawl for a female turtle means that there’s something present on the beach that makes her too uncomfortable to lay her eggs and therefore she will return to the ocean not laying any eggs at all. Dodson said that the number of false crawls this year was the highest she’s seen in terms of percentages compared to nesting.
“The beaches are changing, therefore the turtles are falsing their crawls and not laying as many nests,” Dodson said.
Dodson is unsure, however, whether or not this number is due to the increase in seawall construction along the coast.
Seawalls are built as means of protection to the coast from daily erosion and natural disasters.
Dr. Jessica Veenstra, associate professor in the Natural Science department at Flagler College, immediately took note of the coastal erosion post-Matthew and has been working with her students in some of the more drastically affected areas on Vilano Beach.
Veenstra and her students noted that at least 20 to 30 feet of dune were lost from the hurricane. Veenstra said they collapsed underneath the foundations of the homes.
With that much loss of vegetated dune, the potential ground for sea turtle nests has essentially begun to eliminate itself, and constructing more seawalls won’t be an answer that plays out in favor of the sea turtles, according to Veenstra.
“Yes it protects the home, but it really eliminates that nesting habitat,” Veenstra said.
However, Dodson said that this is where the situation becomes tricky because on one hand there’s the people whose homes are at risk and on the other is the risk of habitat loss for the sea turtles to lay their eggs.
“You’re talking about taking somebody’s personal life and telling them, ‘I’m sorry you can’t have a seawall because the sea turtles nest here,’” Dodson said. “But then you take somebody on the other extreme who really believes in sea turtle nesting habitat and believes in natural resource protection, and you’re saying, ‘No, we need to restore it back to its natural state for sea turtle protection, not for you.’”
A local Vilano Beach resident whose house made it through the hurricane, Katya Macek, 20, isn’t entirely against the idea of a seawall, but said that it’s the process of getting one in place she doesn’t like.
“It would definitely benefit in the long run if we do have another hurricane.” Macek said, “But for me the construction isn’t worth it.”
Macek said that the trash construction workers leave on their sites disgusts her and she doesn’t want that anywhere near the beach. Vilano is already pushing for more hotels to be built in that area as well, Macek said.
“I think it will cause more commotion,” Macek said.
Dodson, someone who lost her home to the hurricane, said that she personally has no opinion on the matter either way, but thinks there needs to be some sort of balance between the two.
“I think it needs to be approached in a holistic manner and not managed individually,” she said.
These threats that the sea turtles face are not just being noted by conservation officials, but the turtles themselves seem to be more aware of what’s taking place on the beaches than people think they are, Dodson said.
Not only false crawls, but Macek said that she and other volunteers walked around Vilano to help save hatchlings that were trapped beneath piles of seaweed.
“We walked around and rescued them with a lady from the turtle hospital for a few days,” Macek said.
In regards to the extreme changes the beaches underwent, Veenstra said people should expect the beaches to change. And with the seawalls being built, more energy will topple the beaches because the impact from the waves on the space around the seawalls has the force to essentially take away more beach habitat, Dodson said.
Naturally, beaches come and go because they’re supposed to. And Dodson defines beaches as being a “barrier to the mainland.”
However, when it comes to the public’s desire to have those boardwalks and other amenities on the beach, that’s when mother nature is seemingly unable to decide the fate of the beach for herself. Therefore, this leaves the turtles to fend for themselves.
And with all the reconstruction happening on the beaches now, Veenstra said that she is worried about what is being built on the beaches, especially after the storm.
Rebuilding the beaches back to what they were before the hurricane isn’t the answer, Dodson said.
“We should learn from what just happened,” Dodson said.
A large amount of sea turtle habitat has just been destroyed. If the homes weren’t on the beaches, the habitat would most likely still be stable, Dodson said.
In the U.S., the loss of beach habitat ranks as one of the top five greatest threats to sea turtles; with litter, debris, entanglements and disease (human and natural causes) not far behind it, Dodson said.
Overall, humans play the largest role in what’s to come for the sea turtles.
It’s difficult to say if the turtles will adapt to the changes the beaches have been faced with, Dodson said.
But evolution over the years life has existed on Earth has proved itself to manage, and the sea turtles are no exception, Veenstra said.
“Organisms seem to have a way to make it through,” Veenstra said.