STUART, Fla. - - Local sea turtle experts are optimistic that an "upward tick" in nest numbers last year will become an "upward trend" this year.
Turtle nesting season on the Treasure Coast begins in early March — the first nest this year was laid by a leatherback April 4 — and runs through October. The season typically cranks up in late June and early July when loggerheads, by far the most numerous species locally, start nesting in large numbers.
"Nesting season is just at its peak," said Rick Herren, sea turtle nest coordinator for Indian River County, "so it's a little premature to do any number comparisons with previous years. Still, I've got to say that the numbers, especially with loggerheads, have been pretty high so far. We're about 400 loggerhead nests above where we were this time last year. If this continues, it could be the best season since the 1990s, when loggerhead numbers plateaued."
Between 1998 and 2010, Herren said, the number of local loggerhead nests dropped about 40 percent.
"Then in 2010," said Erik Martin, scientific director of Jensen Beach-based Ecological Associates, which has a contract to monitor turtle nesting on Hutchinson Island in southern St. Lucie County and northern Martin County, "we had an upward tick in nest numbers, especially for loggerheads, the species we're most concerned with because we have so many of them here on the Treasure Coast."
So the question, Herren said, is this: "Are we on an upward trend or was (last year) just an aberration? Again, it's a little premature, but it looks like we could be continuing to go up."
"The numbers aren't pointing toward setting a record," he said, "but this year could be higher than the previous several years, so I'm optimistic."
Martin said it's definitely too early to come up with reasons for the improved numbers.
"It's difficult to determine what's going on with the turtles when they're out at sea," he said.
Warm weather and warm ocean temperatures along the Treasure Coast have certainly helped get the nesting season off to a quick start, Herren said, noting that the first loggerhead nest in Indian River County was laid April 16, a couple of weeks earlier than normal.
"But I can't say that warmer water will increase nesting over the course of the season," he added.
An upswing in the number of nest laid will be for naught, Martin said, "if the hatchlings don't get into the water where they need to be."
Martin noted that of the first 53 leatherback nests that already have hatched, hatchlings in 11 of them became disoriented when they emerged from the sand and headed inland instead to the ocean. Several of the "disorientations," he said, were to the north and south of Stuart Beach. Lights at houses and businesses along the beach are the main cause of disorientation.
"Hatches are going to ramp up in July and be going full tilt in August," Herren said. "So now's the time that people really need to abide by laws that prohibit lights on beaches."