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Record Summer of Turtle Nesting at Cape Hatteras National Seashore Spawns....Debate

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A sea turtle hatchling makes its way to the Atlantic surf at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. NPS photo.

It's hard to believe an object similar in size, shape, and even color to a Ping-Pong ball could threaten a way of life. But for many who call the Outer Banks of North Carolina home, that's how they view sea turtle eggs, as threats to their enjoyment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore and, for some, even their livelihoods.

And yet, these tiny white orbs are surprising biological spheres.

* They are laid by the dozen in relatively shallow holes their mothers scoop out of the beach;

* Their evolving occupants have their sex determined by the nest's temperature;

* They must survive raiding foxes, feral cats, ghost crabs, and human beach-goers, as well as turbulent surf whipped up by hurricanes, and;

* After about two months, the occupants must break out of their confining shells, dig their way to the surface, and skitter down to the ocean where they'll spend their next few years drifting on the currents.

The problem, as some see it, however, is that the precautions seashore officials take to protect these turtle rookeries and their offspring from off-road vehicle traffic and pedestrians are excessive. So excessive, they contend, that many of the the national seashore's 68 miles of beach are either directly off-limits to ORVs or require long walks, walks that simply are too long when you're traveling with young children, surf-casting gear, beach chairs, and coolers.

The turtles, though, seem to be thriving under these conditions.

In just five years the number of sea turtle nests on Cape Hatteras National Seashore has doubled, going from 76 in 2006 to at least 153 this summer, a record for a setting that seems to spawn more news over beach access than species preservation.

While groups such as North Carolina Audubon point to the record numbers of nests as proof that better control over where and when off-road vehicles can drive on the seashore's beaches contributes to nesting success, some ORV enthusiasts and those greatly concerned over beach access label such comments "propaganda" and "misleading," and lament that their tax dollars are, in effect, funding closures to protect both nesting sea turtles and threatened shorebirds, closures that deny them access to those same beaches.

What can't be ignored, though, is that this summer's nesting of sea turtles at Cape Hatteras was highly successful, with 8,255 hatched eggs sending thousands of baby turtles towards the Atlantic Ocean. The 153 tallied nests -- 147 of which were laid by threatened loggerhead turtles, and six by green turtles -- represented a sizable increase over the 104 nests counted in 2009 and roughly equals the number of nests at nearby Cape Lookout National Seashore, which doesn't have the same amount of ORV or pedestrian traffic as its northern neighbor.

But no one knows exactly what was behind the high productivity.

The Whims of Sea Turtle Reproduction

Female loggerhead turtles are thought to reach sexual maturity when they're about 35 years old, making one wonder whether there was a population boom in 1975 that was finally realized, reproductively, this summer. Or the high nest count could have been tied to a very good foraging year for female turtles to put on fat reserves to help them with their migration.

"It's classic to see fluctuations from year to year," said Dr. Matthew Godfrey, the sea turtle program coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. "And it could be quite startling sometimes, especially with green turtles, but loggerheads you see it too. So it's not surprising to see a big change from year to year."

While there was a big change in nests at Cape Hatteras this past summer, Dr. Godfrey said that, overall, loggerhead nesting in the Southeastern states of North and South Carolina, and Georgia was good but not record-setting.

Concerns about the future of the loggerhead species are such that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is studying whether those sea turtles need to carry an "endangered" tag, not simply one proclaiming them "threatened." In considering such a change, the agency noted how beach-driving adversely impacts loggerheads.

Beach driving has been found to reduce the quality of loggerhead nesting habitat in several ways. In the southeastern U.S., vehicle ruts on the beach have been found to prevent or impede hatchlings from reaching the ocean following emergence from the nest. Sand compaction by vehicles has been found to hinder nest construction and hatchling emergence from nests. Vehicle lights and vehicle movement on the beach after dark results in reduced habitat suitability, which can deter females from nesting and disorient hatchlings. Additionally, vehicle traffic on nesting beaches contributes to erosion, especially during high tides or on narrow beaches where driving is concentrated on the high beach and foredune.

Groups that sued the National Park Service to force it to develop a formal off-road management plan for Cape Hatteras maintain that those efforts, to some extent, are behind the banner year. For the Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife, which retained the Southern Environmental Law Center to sue the National Park Service in 2007 over its lack of an ORV management plan for the seashore, the cause and effect are clear.

“The success of this nesting season underscores the need for a long-term ORV management plan at the Seashore,” Jason Rylander, staff attorney for Defenders, said in a release. “Our parks should be safe places for wildlife in addition to providing recreational opportunities for visitors.”

“Human disturbance is a primary factor in beach nesting success that is largely within the control of the Park Service,” added Julie Youngman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We believe the effective management of beach driving contributed to this year’s tremendous success.”

But no one at the Park Service or North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is so quick to cite the interim ORV restrictions that are scheduled to be replaced by a permanent plan next spring entirely for the nesting success. But the interim rules that resulted from a consent decree signed in 2007 to settle the lawsuit seem to be a step in the right direction.

"I would say that the consent decree definitely has helped us," said Britta Muiznieks, the seashore's wildlife biologist. "With the night driving restrictions that were a part of the consent decree, there's definitely been less disturbance to nesting turtles, as far as turtles attempting to nest as well as (actually) nesting."

While those interim rules have been much protested by some on Cape Hatteras, led to verbal abuse heaped on Park Service staff, and spawned stories and videos depicting dire economic impacts for businesses along the seashore, something else has risen along with the numbers of turtle nests: The overall economy.

According to the Dare County Visitor's Bureau, July's vacation rentals along Cape Hatteras were at a record high; when the various tills were counted from motels, hotels, B&Bs, and campgrounds, the $101.7 million taken in in July was a 16 percent increase over July 2009 revenues.

Larry Hardham, president of the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club, however, said those stats can be misleading in that they shadow pockets of the seashore's business community that are suffering due to the ORV and pedestrian restrictions.

"Even when one category, such as 'weekly real estate rentals' may be up; another category may be down. For example, motels which depend on spur-of-the-moment travel plans," Mr. Hardham pointed out. "Such short notice trips would be news of prized runs of Spanish mackerel, red drum, flounder or pompano at Cape Point, Oregon Inlet, Hatteras Inlet or Ocracoke Inlet. In prior years, news of these runs brought fishermen and their families, but with beach access closures these summer runs are undiscovered and this business is lost forever.

"... Even businesses that have managed to break even or show a slight increase have done it at a tremendous personal cost," he added. "They have had to work harder and longer to make less profit. They have had to discount prices/rates tremendously. Many have had to layoff/cutback/terminate employees. Many have not been able to hire summer college students like they normally would. Some have had to refinance or incur additional debt to continue in business. Some have had to cash-in their children's college funds."

More than once when the debate rises over ORV access vs. sea turtles or piping plovers (another threatened species that has spurred tighter regulation of beach driving), ORV backers have argued that human welfare should take precedence over that of wildlife.

You Need Two Sexes For Reproduction

But the welfare of that wildlife can't easily be dismissed, and science has revealed the importance of sea turtle nesting on Cape Hatteras, even if North Carolina's loggerhead nesting population reflects just 1 percent of all loggerhead nesting in the Southeast.

Though North Carolina pales greatly to Florida, which is responsible for about 90 percent of all sea turtle production in the Southeast, when it comes to sheer numbers of loggerhead nests and resulting hatchlings, its beaches nevertheless serve a key role in the future of the species. The sex of an incubating turtle, you see, is influenced by the temperature of the surrounding sands, and in Florida where the beaches are warmer than those in North Carolina, 85-95 percent of the hatchlings are female, said Dr. Godrey. In North Carolina, with its somewhat cooler beaches, the male proportion of the egg hatch rises to 40-45 percent, he said.

"Definitely, the males produced up here mate with the females produced in Florida," he said. "So yes, they definitely are important components of the larger meta population."

That temperature-influenced gender also factors into the national seashore's position to let nests remain where they are laid, rather than relocating them out of the way of beach-goers.

"We believe that we contribute to the male population of loggerheads, which is why we are looking very closely at our relocation practices in hopes that we don’t skew that number," said Ms. Muiznieks. "Florida produces almost all females, so if you’re looking at what we are contributing to the population, we believe that we contribute more males to the population as a whole. So it’s something that we are very aware of and we want to be careful with our manipulations because we don’t want to change that ratio if we can help it."

With that in mind, the seashore tries to avoid relocating nests -- something it does only when it's absolutely necessary, such as when an approaching storm could threaten a nest about to hatch -- higher up into dunes that hold more heat than lower areas, she said.

It's the seashore's relative hands-off approach to turtle management that concerns Mr. Hardham, a retired medical consultant who for 15 years has volunteered for the "turtle patrol" at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. He also recognizes the natural fluctuations in turtle productivity, but thinks those booms could benefit from volunteers guarding over turtle nests at night. Such volunteers would, when hatchlings are emerging, help them find their way to the water by creating "keyhole" enclosures that in effect would guide the turtles straight to the surf, he said.

"It's a complete package," he said, referring to using nest relocations, keyhole enclosures, and volunteers to protect the sea turtles. "Trying to utilize concepts that are used successfully elsewhere, bundling them together. To me the bottom line would be greater protection for the turtles and public access to the seashore. And a very highly educational program as well in the turtle watch program.

"To me it's a win-win situation. And just applying some commonsense."

Traveler footnote: At least six of the national seashores in the National Park System allow beach driving to various degrees. At Padre Island National Seashore, which is a nesting area for Kemp's ridley sea turtles, the most-endangered of sea turtles, officials are working to make permanent a speed limit of 15 mph for beach drivers, down from the previous 25 mph limit. How individual seashores deal with turtle nesting and beach drivers depends largely on which species of turtle is involved and whether it's a listed species under the Endangered Species Act.

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Comments

Having respect for nature is the bottom line. There is no reason that the public must drive on the beach. I think mankind does enough damage to nature that this seems like a small thing to request.


Sea turtles, and turtle hatchlings, have been crawling onto and off of those beaches for eons. Wheeled motor vehicles have been doing so for decades. When the Park Service mission is both to protect and preserve these places AND allow for their recreational enjoyment, it's not that hard to come down on the side of the turtles during the relatively small window of time they need to reproduce. This is common sense. Restrict the ORVs when appropriate, and stop apologizing for it. Reckless beach behavior is at least one of the reasons most sea turtle species today are threatened or endangered. Give them a break -- and a brake.


This is great news for the Seashore that has suffered so long under the wheels of destructive ORVs. Its been 3 straight record years for sea turtles after the NPS finally began to control vehicles on the beach. This is no coincidence. But it is of no surprise that an ORV cheerleader, like Hardham, describes the data as misleading and suggests taking sea turtle out of the hands of nature and putting it in the hands of man with artificial turtle hatcheries, a practice that has been proven time and time again to do more harm than good. Recommendations by sea turtle experts and the sea turtle recovery plans point to vehicles on the beach as a harmful threat to sea turtles and no credible expert describes beach vehicles as beneficial or even benign. Also no coincidence is that the region is experiencing record economic benefit. The businesses not doing so well should probably take down their disgusting anti-plover, anti-wildlife, personal attacks on local people who promote the protection of wildlife, and other vile propaganda that only drives the average seashore visitor from their business, because it is clear that people are avoiding those businesses...or maybe those businesses are not being honest about their economic demise. I was so disgusted by 2 local tackle shops and 2 restaurants that I visited, that I will never ever visit those businesses again and I will warn others to stay away also.


Thanks for another objective article on this subject.

"While there was a big change in nests at Cape Hatteras this past summer, Dr. Godfrey said that, overall, loggerhead nesting in the Southeastern states of North and South Carolina, and Georgia was good but not record-setting."

Dr, Godfrey may want to rethink his statement.

http://ameliaislandliving.com/fernandinabeach/2010/09/amelia-island-sea-...

http://www.blufftontoday.com/news/2010-08-06/hilton-head-island-sees-rec...

http://savannahnow.com/news/2010-09-04/sea-turtles-nest-record-rate-georgia\

It’s been a banner year along the entire east coast, far outside the reach of the Consent Decree.

Kurt, I respectfully request that you print the year-end data of not just the number of nests laid, but also the hatch rate within the seashore, as this is the true measure of successful management. Throw in Pea Island’s sans ORV data as well.

CHNSRA loses upwards of 35% of viable nests annually, mostly due to inundation, which is largely preventable. In some circles, this would be construed as a “Take".


The constant manipulation of information and data in the name of environmentalism to justify agendas that are clearly damaging the futures and economies of the people affected is one of America's sad tragedies. I sense a backlash though. The sympathies of the people are wearing very, very thin. And that's sad as well, because where balance should be created, the scales are going to tilt one way at the end of the day, and it won't be pretty.


Perhaps you can point to the manipulation, Mr. Johnston.

Also, for transparency's sake, don't you work for a New York PR firm and have a direct personal interest in continued ORV access to Cape Hatteras? I ask not so much as to call you out, but rather to provide readers with pertinent information so they might better understand your position.


For transparency's sake, yes I do. And yes, I have a serious personal interest -- the injuries people are suffering. For the record, I have always been a conservationist. Still am. And, for the record, my interests here are not financial, my work in this issue will continue to be pro bono. My interest here is civil liberties, and balance between responsible conservation, environmentalism, common sense, and true speak.

So, for your readers, I support the works of the National Park Service. I insist though, that responsible, balanced acts, works and directions be taken. That responsible, unbiased reporting be made. That numbers are not skewed to meet agendas. That the NPS be responsible to the taxpayers and brands that support it, and not forget who its core base really is.

To imply that the decrees in place destroying the economy of Hatteras has actually changed things positively impacting nesting there is irresponsible, out of touch and false. The mortality rate is unacceptable, as are the practices. Nesting is up all over the east coast, which is great - - but this while this area suffers the most stringent restrictions with the highest mortality rate...isn't rational. I respect your reports and appreciate your attempt at telling both sides, so I'm not calling you out either. In this quest that we all share, to protect our resources, we also are pinned with the responsibility to protect our way of life...ours, and that of mother nature. There must be logical balance. At Hatteras, as in other places, the balance is lost. I fear a backlash of public sentiment that will undo all the works of people trying to accomplish good. NPS and all other parties must get a handle on that.


Mr Johnston,
Since you're here and the topic has diverged to "manipulation of information," I was wondering if you could clarify a few issues I have with "piping mad".
Why wasn't there a disclaimer on the photo with beagle in the foothold trap stating it was being used for emotional value only and it had no connection to Cape Hatteras National Seashore?
Why was the picture of the closed Frisco Pier used, when the issues surrounding it being closed have nothing to do with the access issues?
Why was the picture of the closed motorcycle shop used when the issues surrounding it being closed have nothing to do with access issues? (domestic issue)
How many tax returns have you inspected that support claims of 30 and 40 percent reductions of income?
Thanks in advance for your answers.

As to your statement:
"To imply that the decrees in place destroying the economy of Hatteras has actually changed things positively impacting nesting there is irresponsible, out of touch and false. The mortality rate is unacceptable, as are the practices. Nesting is up all over the east coast, which is great - - but this while this area suffers the most stringent restrictions with the highest mortality rate...isn't rational. I respect your reports and appreciate your attempt at telling both sides, so I'm not calling you out either. In this quest that we all share, to protect our resources, we also are pinned with the responsibility to protect our way of life...ours, and that of mother nature. There must be logical balance. At Hatteras, as in other places, the balance is lost. I fear a backlash of public sentiment that will undo all the works of people trying to accomplish good. NPS and all other parties must get a handle on that. "
How specifically is the economy being destroyed? Specifics please, with concrete examples and dollar amounts.
Now, a number commonly used in a manner of "manipulation of information" is that 2009 had a 65 percent mortality rate, or only 35 percent survival rate. That's not accurate.
The emergence rate - hatchlings coming out of the nests - was near 35 percent, but another 10 percent were removed from nests, hence they can't be counted as emerging for a total of 45 percent. Now that’s not great, but it’s only ~5-10 percentage points below “natural survival rates”. The problem was a little thing called hurricanes and tropical storms offshore, not the relocation policy. Based on what I read in the 2009 annual report ( http://www.nps.gov/caha/naturescience/upload/2009%20Sea%20Turtle%20Repor... have you read it?), their efforts were heroic in the face of what was happening - storm surges washing up - and over - the dunes.
Finally, the “stringent restrictions” you speak of must be the relocation policy? I know they probably didn’t fill you in completely, but Cape Hatteras does not set the relocation policy, the state of North Carolina does. And from what I’ve read of the new recovery plan, relocation is going to become even stricter, especially on hatcheries.
I know though, you’ve probably been told of this magical place called Pea Island where they relocate everything and all the hatchlings survive. Actually though, they don’t:
Pea Island 2010
Nests: 14
In Situ: 4
Relocated: 9 (64.2%)
Lost: 2 (14.2%)
Incubating: 3
False Crawls: 16

Estimated Eggs to Date: 1184
Eggs Lost: 64 (5.4%)
Hatched Eggs: 754
Emerged Hatchlings: 721
Mean Incubation Duration (all): 51.1 days
Mean Clutch Count: 114.3 eggs (Relocated Only)

Mean Hatch Success: 56.9%
Mean Emergence Success: 54.3%
Nest Success: 57.1%
Beach Success: 46.6%
And Hatteras 2010 for comparison:
Nests: 153
In Situ: 90
Relocated: 63 (41.1%)
Lost: 6 (3.9%)
Incubating: 28
False Crawls: 112

Estimated Eggs to Date: 14878
Eggs Lost: 380 (2.5%)
Hatched Eggs: 8255
Emerged Hatchlings: 7242
Mean Incubation Duration (all): 56.7 days
Mean Clutch Count: 108.8 eggs (Relocated Only)

Mean Hatch Success: 58.4%
Mean Emergence Success: 51.6%
Nest Success: 57.5%
Beach Success: 57.7%

These are preliminary, but interesting anyway.


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