Cape Hatteras National Seashore Among Southeast Locations With Record Sea Turtle Nesting Numbers

Record-breaking numbers of sea turtle nests were counted along Southeastern beaches this summer. Green turtle photo by Blair Witherington via USFWS.

It's been a banner year for sea turtle nesting along Southeastern beaches, including those at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

But that seemingly good news is tinged with a bit of regret. While environmentalists say the record nesting numbers are the result of better protection of sea turtles and their nesting habitats, turtle experts fear the good news will be overwhelmed by a long-term outlook that the turtles will struggle with pollution and sea-level rise issues.

At Cape Hatteras, a record 252 sea turtle nests have been counted so far this summer, up from the previous high of 222 counted a year ago. How many hatchlings those 252 nests produced is impossible to say, though seashore officials say each nest averages about 110 eggs.

While the seashore's official turtle tally won't be ready until later this year, loggerheads are the primary turtle species that uses Cape Hatteras beaches for nesting.

Farther south, where the nesting numbers typically are greater, "Green turtle nest numbers are through the roof,” said Bill Miller manager of Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, where a mid-August count of 1,147 more than doubled the 2011 record of 543. At Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, also in Florida, officials say green turtles had built 10,420 nests by August 21, topping the 2011 record of 6,023. Nesting season there won’t end until November.

Loggerheads are also posting nest gains. By mid-August loggerheads had built 1,878 nests at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. That’s 200 more than last year and the highest count since 1978, when the species won national protection, according to refuge manager Sarah Dawsey.

The listing of green sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act in 1978 provided protections for the turtles, making it illegal, for example, to hunt or fish them. Sea turtles take 20 to 30 years to reach sexual maturity, which is why this year’s nesting gains may reflect actions begun decades earlier.

But how long nesting gains will offset threats to sea turtle survival is unknown. Says Miller, “If we don’t do something about ocean debris, loss of habitat to erosion and sea level rise, and the pollution of lagoons and estuaries from runoff, nesting gains will be outweighed by environmental degradations.”