TURTLE NEST NUMBERS EXPLODE IN FLORIDA

A sea turtle hatchling.

This year’s sea turtle nesting numbers were record-breaking. Statewide statistics for 2023 from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) counted 133,941 loggerhead sea turtle nests, breaking a record set in 2016.

The same is true for green turtles, with 76,543 nests counted, more than 20,000 nests above the previous record set in 2017. Of the seven species of sea turtles worldwide, four nest in the Florida Keys: the loggerhead, green, leatherback and hawksbill turtles. Monroe County has many critical nesting sites; you may have seen areas of the beach marked off to protect their nests. The Dry Tortugas and the Marquesas are the most productive nesting regions. 

In 2022, Monroe County counted 457 loggerhead and 481 green turtle nests. The most recent leatherback nest was in 2018. The Kemp’s Ridley turtle does not nest in the Keys. A local fisherman, Richard Kemp, named this smallest sea turtle species in 1906. Kemp’s Ridley mainly nests in Mexico, although 10 nests were counted on Florida beaches this year. All of these species are on the endangered species list.  

Female sea turtles do not nest every year.  But when they do, they typically lay two to five nests throughout the season. Frequent nesting is important because only one in 1,000 hatchlings survive. Trained and permitted volunteers walk the beaches at dawn to document nests and false crawls. A false crawl is when the female emerges from the water to nest but turns around without laying.

Sea turtle nesting season is from March 1 to Oct. 31 (Atlantic) or May 1 to Oct. 31 (Gulf). Egg incubation lasts around 60 days. If you are interested in volunteering, the FWC holds volunteer training in the spring, and many local organizations are state-permitted, like Save-A-Turtle and the Key West Turtle Club.  

A sea turtle nest on a beach in north Florida.

Sea turtles travel thousands of miles over a lifetime, and the females return to the same beaches where they were born. The Marathon Turtle Hospital frequently outfits sea turtles with satellite-tracking transmitters as part of the Tour de Turtles Race to follow their journeys after rehabilitation. A juvenile green sea turtle named Marcia was released in July 2023 and has already traveled 170 miles. Typical of green turtles, Marcia tends to stay near shore, where she eats seagrass.  Sea turtles face threats, including boat strikes, plastic debris, rising water temperatures, light pollution and habitat loss. For more information, visit the Marathon Turtle Hospital, which is open for daily tours.  

The collaborative work of government agencies, conservation organizations and local communities proves that it is possible to rebuild endangered species populations. The success story of sea turtle recovery in Florida results from policies designed to protect them. Shrimp boats are mandated to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) that keep turtles out of shrimp nets. Ordnances to limit light pollution during nesting season have reduced the number of disoriented nesting females and hatchlings that need a dark sky to follow the moonlight on the horizon. The green sea turtle fishery ended in 1973. Before that, thousands were caught, cooked and canned for turtle consommé. In recent decades, conservation efforts have been instrumental in ensuring the triumph of these endangered species. When there is a concerted effort to fix the conditions that cause species decline, the road to recovery can be realized.

Photos by UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IFAS EXTENSION/Contributed

Shelly Krueger is the University of Florida, IFAS Monroe County Extension Florida Sea Grant Agent. Shelly is a marine biologist and provides science-based education about coastal environments.