STUART, Fla. - Endangered green sea turtles, which are raised in the Indian River Lagoon, nested this year in numbers that set records, thrilled local researchers and astonished biologists statewide.
Preliminary numbers show nests from southern Brevard County through Jupiter Island in Martin County skyrocketed to 19,083 from 5,333 in 2012. Loggerhead turtles are typically the stars of nesting season, but this year their numbers were down a little in most places along the Treasure Coast.
"Green turtle nesting was through the roof this summer, and it was the same everywhere in the state," said Rick Herren, an Indian River County environmental specialist who patrols county beaches looking for nests.
Statewide, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission documented more than 25,000 green turtle nests by the end of October on the 26 beaches it uses to estimate nesting activity statewide before the counting season ends Nov. 30.
The Archie Carr Wildlife Refuge — 21 miles of beach interspersed with private property, mostly in southern Brevard but extending into Indian River — saw a spike that amazed University of Central Florida researchers Dean Bagley and Professor Emeritus Llewellyn "Doc" Ehrhart.
"We thought the 5,505, which set a record in 2011, was just mind-blowing. This year we counted 11,839 (in Brevard). I never, ever thought I would hear myself say that we counted more green turtle nests than loggerheads, but this year we did," Ehrhart said. "We have a 15 percent average increase per year since 1982. Wildlife populations don't grow at that rate. An increase of 2 or 3 percent is considered great. This is just unheard of."
Researchers said they weren't certain why nesting spiked, but said green turtles likely were responding to conservation efforts begun 35 years or more ago.
Archie Carr Wildlife Refuge Manager Kristen Kneifl and others said they think the 1978 amendments to the 1973 Endangered Species Act kick-started the nesting increase by reducing people's effect on sea turtles.
"People mostly stopped killing the turtles and taking their eggs," said Ehrhart, who is in his 40th year of turtle research. "People became interested in conservation efforts, and in some places ordinances regulated lighting on the beaches. People buy into the idea and keep their lights off, which gives them a better chance of reaching the ocean instead of a street."
Trapping and removing egg-stealing predators such as raccoons, coyotes, gray foxes and armadillos has also paid off, he said.
Turtles travel hundreds of miles to nest on Florida's beaches, so area conditions may have little to do with why there was such a bumper crop of nests, said Erik Martin, who counts the nests in portions of St. Lucie and Martin counties.
Each turtle may return to nest five to eight times per nesting season, so the actual number of turtles is far lower than the number of nests, Herren pointed out. Turtles also don't nest every year, he said, "so there may have been a lot of young turtles who reached maturity this year who nested for the first time."
SEA TURTLE NESTING
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY
ST. LUCIE COUNTY
ALL TREASURE COAST NESTS
Sources: Indian River County, Fort Pierce Inlet State Park, University of Central Florida, Inwater Research, Ecological Associates, Town of Jupiter Island