Sea turtle nesting season, the annual event that brings mama sea turtles lumbering up sandy beaches all along Volusia and Flagler counties, officially begins today.
Beachfront property owners, local officials and environmental advocates have been readying for this for weeks, while the telltale trails of turtle tracks in the sand already have begun appearing on the beach.
A nest staked and flagged by the Volusia Flagler Turtle Patrol on April 25 was the first loggerhead nest of the season on the beaches in Flagler and Volusia counties. The first leatherback nest appeared in Bethune Beach on April 3.
At least seven leatherback and two loggerhead nests have been dug at Canaveral National Seashore, said park biologist John Stiner. The park spans beaches in Volusia and Brevard counties.
It will really start steamrolling here pretty quick,” Stiner said Monday.
At least four species of sea turtles nest on local beaches. Usually arriving in the evenings, the turtles deposit eggs that will incubate in the sand for weeks before hatchlings emerge to return to the sea. All are protected species, with all but one — the loggerhead — considered federally endangered.
Turtle populations and nesting numbers are watched closely in Florida, where turtle nesting is crucial to the worldwide population of sea turtles.
Loggerhead turtle nesting saw a steep decline between 1998 and 2006, but the numbers have improved and last year’s 65,587 nests were near the five-year average, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Green and leatherback turtle nesting has improved over the long-term, both in Volusia and Flagler counties, as well as across the state.
The 15,352 green turtle nests statewide last year set a record, while the 1,652 leatherback nests on the state’s beaches was the second-highest since the monitoring program began, commission officials said.
From start to finish, nesting season requires careful planning, especially in Volusia, where county officials must meet conditions of a federal permit that seeks to both allow people to drive on the beach and protect turtles, which can get disoriented by people and nearby lights.
Nests in both counties are monitored, counted and reported to state officials.
In Volusia, beachfront lighting remains the most controversial aspect of sea turtle nesting season. A county ordinance requires lights visible from the beach be turned off, shielded or positioned in such a way that they can’t be seen from the beach to lead hatchling sea turtles astray. Some hoteliers say their guests complain and don’t like the darkened beaches the rules require.
Each year the county launches a public awareness and educational effort to try to achieve compliance with lighting regulations. On June 9, Volusia County will conduct an expo for property owners, residents and beachgoers to get more information and prepare for the season.
Last year, sea turtle volunteers and county officials reported that 1,148 hatchlings from 26 turtle nests became disoriented on county beaches, about 3.5 percent of the 32,384 estimated total hatchlings that emerged on the beach.
When nest monitors know a nest is about to hatch, they visit the nest at night and look around to check for lights that could distract hatchlings, said Ginger Adair, Volusia County’s environmental management director.
Like many who manage or live at properties all along the beach, Richard Vyse, general manager at the Holiday Inn in New Smyrna Beach, has been preparing for the season’s arrival.
“I do my usual turning things off here and blocking there,” Vyse said last week. “Now I just have to sit and wait for that first walk through.”
Vyse has talked with the county many times over the years, trying to work out lighting issues. Vyse said different lighting enforcement officers have different interpretations of the rules and things seem to change from year to year.
“I get very frustrated with the inconsistencies in the program,” he said. “We’re all for environmental protection, but there has to be some consistency in the program from one year to the next.”
The enforcement seems to vary on different areas of the beach, Vyse said, and he gets frustrated when he sees signs exposed to the beach in Daytona Beach. “They glow as brightly as ever,” he said.
County officials said they’ve worked to make things more consistent, even when personnel change.
“We try really hard to consistently apply the ordinance, regardless of who the inspector is,” Adair said. “People have complained, asking ‘Why are you looking at my lights and not the people’s down the street.’ But part of that is how we identify lights that are a problem.
“Or, if we have a disorientation event, we look around at the lights we can see and that’s who we go and talk to,” Adair said. “And we have to respond to complaints.”
Last year, county staff processed 194 lighting complaint cases, down about 50 from the previous year. Eleven cases became formal lighting violation cases and two became code enforcement board cases that resulted in a total of $3,000 in fines. That was also down from the previous year, when there were 61 lighting violation cases and 10 code enforcement cases with a total of $7,000 in fines.