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Sea turtle numbers low for second year in a row. Should SC be worried?

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South Carolina’s sea turtle hatching numbers were lower for the second year in a row, but that’s no reason to panic, turtle experts say.

Preliminary numbers, according to the South Carolina Department of natural resources’ sea turtle nest monitoring system, show:

  • 173,839 hatched eggs were reported in 2018.

  • 324,595 hatched eggs were reported in 2017.

  • 418,564 hatched eggs were reported in 2016.

The number of nests also decreased drastically over the years:

  • 2,763 nests were reported in 2018.

  • 5,250 nests were reported in 2017.

  • 6,446 nests were reported in 2016.

Both 2016 and 2018 saw predatory animals as the main reason for significant nest losses.

In 2016 raccoons were listed as the main cause. Then, in 2018, coyote depredation was listed as the main cause, though South Carolina wildlife officials said coyotes aren’t considered a major problem at this time.

In 2017, tides and storms were the reason most often cited for significant nest losses, according to the monitoring system.

Why the decrease?

The turtles’ mating cycle is cyclical so a decrease is not a cause for alarm, explained Michelle Pate, SCDNR’s Sea Turtle Marine Preservation Program coordinator.

She said sea turtles nest every 2-3 years, not every year.

“Nest and egg losses fluctuate from year to year depending on the number of storms affecting the coastline, number of predators living on a beach, predator removal that occurs on a beach, number of nests available to be affected and more,” she wrote in a statement about the season.

SCDNR data show how the number of nests fluctuates by year, so a decrease from 2017 into 2018 was expected.

Impact of storms

The timing of Tropical Storm Irma in 2017 is key when comparing it to the impact of Hurricane Florence and Tropical Storm Michael in 2018, said Erin Weeks, a spokesperson for SCDNR.

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Also, Hurricane Florence’s impact on South Carolina was mostly in the northern part of the state where the sea turtle population is low, she said.

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Amber Kuehn, a marine biologist who manages the Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head, noted several other factors that may have played a role in the decrease.

Similar to when 2014 had a harsh winter, this year also saw water temperatures remain at 38 degrees for an extended period, she said.

This affects sea turtles’ major food source — crabs, Kuehn said. Female sea turtles need to feed in order to have energy to mate and lay their eggs.

There was also an issue with a lot of “rain bombs” — huge microbursts of precipitation in a small area — affecting the coast, said Kuehn.

This caused tidal inundation where a lot of nests flooded due to the ground not absorbing the amount of water hitting land.

Next year’s outlook

Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head plans to be less conservative in relocating its turtle nests next year, Kuehn said.

“One of the things that we can do (to help sea turtles) is to make their journey to the water safe,” she said.

After that, it’s up to Mother Nature and the sea turtle hatchlings if they survive into adulthood.

Time will tell on how 2019 numbers will stack up, but experts remain hopeful based on previous trends.

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