Seven members of Coastal Wildlife Club, which monitors sea turtle and shore bird activity on Gasparilla Island, attended the inaugural Southeast Regional Sea Turtle Network meeting Feb 1-4 on Jekyll Island, Ga.
More than 400 conservationists, researchers, veterinarians, academics, fisheries managers, conservation representatives and government agency staff attended to discuss sea turtle research and conservation.
Florida's Blair Witherington opened the presentations by recognizing the late Sinkey Boone, a well-known Georgia shrimper and inventor of the original "Georgia Jumper" turtle excluder device. Witherington labeled the TED the "the most important [sea turtle] conservation tool that we're likely to see in our lifetime."
A casting of a 12-foot Archelon fossil at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Archelon, a marine turtle and a contemporary of the dinosaurs, was the largest turtle ever.
Installed in shrimp nets, TEDs exclude bycatch, debris, seabirds, and turtles and thereby increase catch. Saving time and money, TEDs are alternately known as trawling efficiency devices.
Brian Shamblin of the University of Georgia reported on his genetics studies based on samples from nests in multiple states and collected by a network of thousands of individuals, including CWC volunteers.
Though sea turtles are known to return to nest in the same general area where they hatched, Shamblin's work revealed a loggerhead sea turtle that in 2011 surprisingly nested in Georgia, South Carolina, and in North Carolina. He has not yet analyzed the southwest Florida samples taken from nests of loggerheads and green turtles.
Sea turtle work is long-term and collaborative in dealing with a migratory, long-lived species. An example is the bi-national effort between Mexico and the United States, ongoing since 1978, to establish a second nesting colony of Kemp's Ridley sea turtles on Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. The effort appears to be succeeding.
Sea turtle population estimates are based on nest numbers. Given that 90 percent of loggerhead nesting in the United States occurs in Florida, the 40 percent decline in loggerhead nesting in the decade after 1998 has been a great concern.
Nest numbers, however, in the last two years have been better statewide and on Manasota Key, the center of Gulf Coast nesting in Southwest Florida.
"Though statistics don't allow us to call it a reversal, it does look as though the decline has bottomed out," said Llewellyn Ehrhart of the University of Central Florida said.
The U.S. Endangered Species Act has federally protected marine turtles for the last 40 years.
Leatherback nesting, rebounding here on the Atlantic Coast, has plummeted by as much as 90 percent on some Pacific Coast beaches.
More than 70 CWC members will travel to Gainesville Feb. 17 for the annual Florida Marine Turtle permit-holder meeting for the latest research findings and conservation advances.
CWC volunteers monitor most of the nesting beaches from south Venice to the Boca Grande Pass. For more information, go to coastalwildlifeclub.org.