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.