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


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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Hey Kurt,
If anyone wonders why the Reg/Neg attempt failed, well, I think the preceeding pretty well explains it.


Spin is interesting.

You implied that environmental organizations were dishonest about filling a lawsuit about the Park’s Interim Protected Species Management Plan (IPSMP).

“which the SELC parties jumped ship from mid-process, going against their own pledges not to do so.”

Not so.

In fact in May 2005 and again in December 2006, Defenders issued a notice of intent to sue the National Park Service for failure to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedures Act, and two Presidential Executive Orders and other federal laws and regulations with respect to its authorization of unlimited off-road vehicle use at the seashore.

This was all well ahead of the reg/neg and the paperwork was filled before the reg/neg got started. If this were correct the ORV lawyers would never have let the reg/neg get started with those environmental organizations.

In the court of law that is how the ball bounces. It is exactly how I would expect the ORV access organizations to behave if the roles were reversed.

If those organizations had not sued the Park the Park would be managing or mismanaging (depending on your POV) protected species under the IPSMP today.

More spin from my POV.

“photoshopped lines of cars on the beach”
Look at your posted pictures in the comments of the “Traveler” to see lines of cars on the beach.

“Sir, it is painfully obvious that you are categorically against all ORV use on any beach, for any reason”

I have never advocated for eliminating all ORV use in the Seashore. I am advocating for protecting resources, preserving a National Park experience and ORV use. And believe all 3 things can all be accommodated in CHNS. Oh yea, and that recreational users obey CHNS regulations, like not driving on the toe of the dune.


Dadgum Ghost Crabs. There's your problem. Put a bounty on 'em, say 50 cents each. Then let the kids catch 'em and turn 'em in by the bucketful. Do this every year starting right before hatching time till the end of it :)


Thanks for the article. It is all very complicated.

I think it is important to note that Mr. Hardom is one of the spokespeople for ORV access in CHNS. As you stated he is president of the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club (CHAC) whose mission statement reads in part:

“Cape Hatteras Anglers Club serves as a "Watch Dog" organization over all individuals and agencies that would close or limit access to our beaches.”

Turtle nests have little affect on pedestrian access because pedestrians can walk in or behind the dune to get around the turtle nest. The turtle closures are very small in comparison to bird closures and the beach between the turtle nest and water is closed only at the hatching window. Protocols are in place that allows Park Biologists to excavate the nest if it fails to hatch.

Mr. Hardam’s opinion that pedestrian closures are affecting business or that ORV advocates have concerns for pedestrian access is not so straightforward. When ORV leaders refer to pedestrian access areas I assume they mean the beach adjacent to the 4 month seasonal pedestrian access only areas in front of the villages and all the available ORV accessible areas that pedestrian may access but seldom do. Many visitors don’t want to recreate among parked vehicles or negotiate tire-rutted beaches associated with ORV routes.

ORV spokespeople are not in favor of pedestrian routes being established around bird resource closures. They cite a study that shows vehicles are less likely to disturb birds than pedestrians. I am not aware of any study conducted in CHNS that looks at specific pedestrian access routes that detour around bird closures. In addition the studies they cite don’t address the issue of which type of access (pedestrian or ORV) is safer for chicks and nesting birds. It seems reasonable that pedestrian routes that bypass resource closures could be established quicker and with less intrusion than alternate ORV routes. One would also think that pedestrian access is better than no access at all.

Four other national seashores allow no beach driving at any time and 3 others have ORV plans that allocate considerably less available beach to ORV use than CHNS and or set ORV carrying capacity limits. Cape Lookout National Seashore is in the process of forming an ORV management plan. Currently the entire beach is available for ORV access. However, ORV use is limited in Cape Lookout National Seashore because visitors using vehicles can only access the Park by one small private ferry. Padre Island National Seashore is all designated for ORV use because Texas Law classifies beaches as roads.

CHNS’s enabling legislation does not specifically mention ORV use as a stated recreational activity but does spell out a test as to what activities are appropriate, which is:

“no development of the project or plan for the convenience of visitors shall be undertaken which would be incompatible with the preservation of the unique flora and fauna or the physiographic conditions now prevailing in this area”.

All of Hatteras Island’s economy has been impacted by the national recession, the collapse of the real estate market and local home building trade. ORV advocates seldom acknowledge these factors when discussing economic concerns. It is a stretch to insinuate that resource closures have created all the economic hardship that Mr. Hardom suggests. It is likely that negative and misleading information (overstating pedestrian access issues) by ORV advocates has contributed to some of the economic problems.

While Mr. Hardom has been president of CHAC their annual fishing tournament has grown to 120 teams. The tournament teams all use ORVs to fish in the National Seashore during the tournament. According to their website this fishing tournament is now considered to be the largest fishing tournament in the world. So obviously fishermen still find Hatteras a desirable and accessible fishing destination despite current NP turtle management practices.

Nest Success - This is calculated by the total number of nests that hatched with > 10% emergence success divided by the number of nests laid.

Beach Success - This is calculated by the total number of nests laid divided by the total number of crawls (nest crawls and false crawls).

Actually, CAHA relocated 31 percent of their nests in 2009 (they had 32 percent emergence).

Cat 2 Bill was 434 miles off shore, and Tropical Storm Danny parked 80 miles off-shore. Both hit with significantly high surges - some over wash of the dunes at Sandy Bay. Then there was Nor' Ida.....
But we got pretty large swells this year from Danielle and she (and then Colin) was on the other side of Bermuda. Each successive storm erodes the beach and gets closer to the nests.

But if it's about the percentages, this year CAHA has lost 3.9 (6) percent of its nests and PINWR 14.2 (2).

"Come on Dap, you shouldn't make such claims without even checking them out first:"


I did an average of the relatively small sample area on Isle of Palms, SC, turtle nests to date per the website sourced. You do the math. It still comes out to 80+%.

They lost more nests, then Cape Hatteras even had.

Granted, but Look at the numbers again, especially the ones in (*).

Lost: 155 (4.9%)

155 = 4.9% OF 3,135 nests.

This is about percentages, not raw numbers. 4.9%<35% of "X", no?

Mean Hatch Success: 65.5%
Mean Emergence Success: 62.2%
Program Nest Success: 75.8%
Program Beach Success: 41.2%

These percentages are kind of important too. Not sure what "Beach Sucess" entails.

In 2009, Georgia lost approximately 15% of their nests, and relocated 40.2%. South
Carolina lost 12.9% and relocated 48.9%.

In contrast, CHNS only relocated 25% and lost 35.6% in 2009,
with no hurricanes within 400 miles of our coast.

I would find such data hard to defend.


Agreed. Extreme turbidity has been part of this since 1978, give or take a decade...

Issues with such huge disparities as this, when examined in detail, usually show that the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. I would hope the informed reader would be able to find the middle ground between the two, taking neither at face value without further research on their own part.

Battling with statistics on all relevant CHNSRA subjects represent only numbers on paper, putting it in terms of human social and socioeconomic impact is hard to express, much less quantify. Hence video interviews of those effected for all to see.

Refresh my memory: has anyone talked about mediation for arriving at an ORV plan? I know there were committees appointed and many meetings that, largely, went for naught en route to the NPS's draft management plan.

See failed NPS Negotiated Rulemaking process, which the SELC parties jumped ship from mid-process, going against their own pledges not to do so.

Just out of curiosity, would the players on both sides agree to sit down with an impartial mediator, present him/her with their views, and accept his/her decision on beach driving? With the understanding, of course, that that decision would have to abide by the requisite Park Service and ESA mandates?

I think you just described a Federal Appellate Court, which is where this will likely be decided, hopefully in our lifetimes.

Oh, and [South Carolina] moves nests that are at even the slightest risk of innundation.

Funny, that....

Come on Dap, you shouldn't make such claims without even checking them out first:

South Carolina 2010:
Nests: 3135
In Situ: 1479
Relocated: 1656 (52.8%)
Hatchery: 325 (10.3%)
Lost: 155 (4.9%)
Incubating: 444
Unknown: 22
False Crawls: 4463

Estimated Eggs to Date: 316932
Eggs Lost: 15097 (4.7%)
Hatched Eggs: 205201
Emerged Hatchlings: 194832
Mean Incubation Duration (all): 52.3 days
Mean Clutch Count: 112.9 eggs (Relocated Only)

Mean Hatch Success: 65.5%
Mean Emergence Success: 62.2%
Program Nest Success: 75.8%
Program Beach Success: 41.2%

They lost more nests, then Cape Hatteras even had.

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