North Carolina Newspapers

uncSer the sun
Brunswick Turtle Watch Shifts Into
High Gear
Brunswick County Turtle Watch volunteers are
burning the candle at both ends these days.
They'll continue to work late into the night and
rise early each morning for the next few weeks as the
sea turtle nesting season draws to close and the hatch
ing season starts gathering steam.
"It's crazy this time of year," said Judy Bryan, turtle
watch coordinator at Holdcn Beach. "You're Ux>king
for nests all morning and sitting with the nests all night.
It's exhausting, but it's worth it to get those babies in
the water."
Sponsored by the Brunswick County Parks and
Recreation Department, the turtle watch program solic
its volunteers at each beach to help monitor turtle nest
ings, relocate nests threatened by tidal waters and help
babies get to the ocean.
Tina Pritchard, who runs the program for parks and
recreation, said this is the second year that residents and
visitors have "adopted" turtle nests on the Brunswick
County beaches.
People who "adopt" wait at the nest as the hatch
date draws near, count the babies when they hatch from
the eggs and lead them safely to the water with Hash
A lot of the people who adopted nests mm yeai
came back to help this season. "The return ratio has
been wonderful for us," Ms. Pritchard said. "It obvious
ly has been a good experience for people if they're
coming back."
The baby turtles, which are about the size of silver
dollars, recently started emerging from the more than
200 nests that have been laid this year on the South
Brunswick and Oak Island beaches.
Ms. Pritchard said turtles laid about 130 nests this
year on Oak Island. In the South Brunswick Islands,
nest totals through last week were 21 at Sunset Beach,
17 at Ocean Isle Beach and 34 at Holdcn Beach.
The nesting season in Brunswick County began in
early May and runs through late August. Turtles usually
start hatching in late July and continue into October.
Four different kinds of sea turtle arc known to nest
on Brunswick County beaches, but the most common is
the loggerhead. Others are the Green Sea turtle, the
Icathcrback and the Kemp's Ridley, which is extremely
rare and projected to be extinct within 20 years.
Mrs. Bryan said the first two sea turtle nests at
Hoklcn Heath hatched last week. Volunteers believe
there is a Kemp's Ridley nest on the beach, based on
the mother's tracks and size of the eggs.
Although nesting activity is slightly down Irom last
year at Moldcn Beach, one of the loggerhead nests ex
pected to hatch in mid- August has 175 eggs in it.
Ms. Pritchard said that's a record number of eggs
for Brunswick County. "The interesting thing is to see il
she comes back and lays that many again," she said.
Gloria Hunsucker, who is coordinating the turtle
watch at Ocean Isle Beach, said two Icathcrbacks are
among the 17 turtles that have nested on the beach this
On a negative note, she said some of the people vis
iting the bcach have bothered the sea turtles when they
come ashore to lay their nests. One group of people
threw beer cans at a turtle.
"Human visitors arc not our only visitors to this is
land," she said. "People need to move back, let them
come up and lay their eggs."
If people don't let the adult turtles lay their eggs and
allow the babies to get into the ocean, Mrs. Hunsucker
said there won't be any turtles left at Ocean Isle 15
years from now.
Because sea turtles arc an endangered and threat
ened spccics, people who iiaiass liie repiiies or destroy
their ncsLs can be fined up to S 10,000 and sentenced to
10 years in jail.
Sunset Beach Turtle Watch Coordinator Minnie
Hunt and her crew of helpers have 2 1 nests to lake care
of this year, compared to seven last year.
"People seem to be extremely interested," she said.
"Once they understand what's going on, they're also
extremely protective."
Sea turtles almost always nest at night, dragging
themselves across the sand to a spot above the high tide
line where they dig a hole with their hind flippers, lay
between 80 and 200 eggs and cover them with sand.
After an incubation period of 50 to 85 days, baby
turtles come out of their nest. Hatchlings usually come
out at night and are drawn to the ocean by reflective
light from the moon.
Experts estimate that only one in 1,000 babies sur
vives to adulthood. Many eggs arc wiped out by crabs
and ocean tides before they hatch, and babies arc often
eaten by sharks, birds and other predators as they make
their way to the Gulf Stream where they mature.
It is believed that female sea turtles always return to
the beach where they were bom to lay their eggs. Once
they arc mature, turtles nest every two or three years
and can live to be 1(X) years old.
Despite the high mortality rate anil nesting prob
lems associated with beachfront development, scientists
believe sea turtles have existed tor 2(X) million years.
They go back to the days of the dinosaurs.
A F EMAIJL LOGGERHEAD returns to the ocean after laying a nest of 116 eggs earlier this year at
Holden Reach. The babies are expected to hatch in a few weeks.
KATHER1NE BELCHER of llolden Reach leads a group of baby sea turtles to the ocean last sum
mer. Volunteers use flashlights to guide the turtles through a shallow trench to the sea.
Sea turtle preservation efforts that so far
have focused on protecting eggs and help
ing hatchlings return to the ocean will not
be sufficient to prevent the extinction of en
dangered or threatened species like the log
gerhead, says a zoologist at North Carolina
State University.
Far more effective in reversing the steadi
ly declining numbers of nesting sea turtles
would be approaches that save large juve
nile and adult turtles, says Dr. Larry 0.
Crowder, NCSU professor of zoology. And,
he said, one of the most promising methods
of saving the older turUes is continued use
of the controversial turtle excluder de
vices on shrimp trawlers.
Crowder reached those conclusions after
developing a mathematical population mod
el of loggerhead turtles.
The model showed that the large juvenile
and young adult stages that arc often
Studying Best Ways To Protect Sea
Turtle Populations
drowned in shrimp trawler nets are the very
siagcs that contribute most to the sea tur
ucs' population recovery.
"What really came as a shock is that the
beach-oriented protection programs alone
will not protect the loggerhead. We found
that putting all our cfforLs (ai preservation)
on the bcach, where most efforts have been
directed so far, is not die answer," Crowder
said. "We've got lo protect the larger juve
niles and adults to really make a difference
in future populations."
Working with Dr. Deborah T. Crouse, a
scientist at the University of Wisconsin,
Crowder developed the population model
based on 20 years of data on loggerhead
turde populations at Little Cumberland
Island, Ga.
The research took into consideration each
life stage's reproductive value-that is, how
much an individual at a particular stage of
life can contribute to the future growth or
maintenance of the population.
Bccausc a sea turtle lays thousands of
eggs in her lifetime and because most of the
hatchlings will succumb in their first year to
predators, the reproductive value of a turtle
egg is very low. On the other hand, the re
productive value of a turtle that has sur
vived to the large juvenile stage (X to 15
years old) is six times that of an egg. A ma
ture breeder's reproductive value is more
than 5(X) times that of an egg.
Using those values, Crowder determined
that because the reproductive value of the
earlier stage was so very low compared to
the older stages, even protecting 1(K) per
cent of the eggs anil hatchlings would not
be sufficient to reverse the decline in num
bers of nesting females.
"We found that the stage we need to tar
get-the stage that most needs to survive to
get the species back up on an even kccl-is
the large juvenile. We found that a 15 to 20
percent increase in survivorship of the large
juveniles would allow the population to re
cover," Crow tier said.
Crowder is using his population model to
help marine fisheries officials determine the
effectiveness of turtle excluder devices
(TEDs), now required equipment on most
shrimp trawlers.
TEDs. which serve as a trap door to al
low turtles to escape the nets and avoid
drowning, were developed in the early
1980s after marine biologists recognized
that trawling was responsible for a signifi
cant number of turtle deaths each year. A
National Academy of Sciences report pub
lished last tall concluded that trawling is the
single largest cause of turtle deaths-an esti
mated 40,(KX> to 5(),WH) loggerheads per
year in U.S. waters.
But the use of TEDs has been hotly con
tested, especially in the Gulf Coast states,
by many shrimpers w ho argue that the use
of the equipment reduces their shrimp
Crowder said his continuing research on
turtle populations will provide the analysis
to show whether TED use will improve tur
de populations. Early data indicate that
TED use not only saves individual turtles,
but that use of TEDs and other measures to
protect large juvenile and adult turtles may
he critical to marine turde species.
"Beach-oriented conservation programs
are fine, but they are not enough. If your re
sources arc limited you need to attack the
problem in the area where you can see the
greatest chance for improvement- and that's
at the larye juvenile and adult stage.
"There's promising evidence that TEDs
will have very positive effects on the popu
lation," Crowder said, "but it will take time
because turtles are long-lived. My message
is hang in there, but don't expect to see big
results right away."
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