November 23, 2022
The News section of the Thursday Edition of my local paper (yes, it is only Wednesday, but that is a whole other story) featured an article on how lighting on overdeveloped beaches is disorienting sea turtles. The female turtles crawl up the beach to lay their eggs, and the hatchlings later use the light of the moon reflecting off water to orientate themselves for the trek back to the sea. The lights from parking garages, buildings, and even flashlights from people searching for crabs can cause the young turtles to mistake the direction to the ocean and lead them toward busy streets rather than the safety of the ocean. The Share the Beach organization has partnered with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to identify the disorienting lighting and then establish a plan with the owner to retrofit the lights with amber or red LED lights that do not distract the turtles. Share the Beach has 100’s of volunteers who mark the nests, set up protective barriers, and then assist the baby turtles on their return to the sea. Loggerhead (Caretta caretta), Green (Chelonia mydas), and Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) sea turtles all nest along the Alabama beaches patrolled by Share the Beach.
When I looked online, I found Share the Beach was formed in 2005 by the Friends of the Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge in Gulf Shores. This program follows protocols set by the US Fish and Wildlife Service under the federal endangered species recovery permit and volunteers can help protect the nesting sea turtles and their habitat under these guidelines. Share the Beach volunteers patrol the beach, educate the public and school groups, conduct late-night nest observations, and assist with supply and equipment preparations. The annual patrols for sea turtles begin on May 1 and end August 31, but the season continues through October 31 and the remaining nests continue to be monitored. Share the Beach volunteers monitor all 47 miles of Alabama’s beach-front coastline, devoting their time to searching for new nests, marking them, and protecting the nests and hatchlings from natural and human-related dangers. Turtles lay an average of 110 eggs per nest with an incubation period of 55 to 70 days. Between 2010 and 2020, an estimated 70,786 hatchlings have made it to the water from Alabama’s beaches.
Once the turtles reach the ocean their human worries are far from over. Research suggests that 52% of the world’s turtles have eaten plastic waste. The reason is a floating plastic bag can look like a lot of jellyfish, algae, or other species that make up a large component of the sea turtles’ diet. While all sea turtles are in danger of eating the plastic, the carnivorous loggerhead and mainly plant-eating green turtle were both shown to be consuming plastic in alarming quantities, according to a study from the University of Tokyo. The loggerheads probably mistake plastic for jellyfish and eat it 17% of the time it is encountered. The green turtles probably mistake the plastic for algae and eat it 62% of the time it is encountered. The study found 22% of the turtles that eat plastics die. Sharp plastics rupture internal organs and bags cause intestinal blockages resulting in starvation. Even if they survive, consuming plastic can make turtles unnaturally buoyant, which can stunt their growth and lead to slow reproduction rates. The accumulation of plastics at key nesting beaches also means baby turtles are at risk from plastic entanglement, preventing them from reaching the sea.
THOUGHTS: Six of seven species of sea turtles around the world are endangered or threatened. There are ways humans can help save these species. This begins with reducing your carbon footprint (climate change destroys coral reefs), reducing plastics (mistake for food), “Leave No Trace” when visiting a beach (trash hazard for nesting turtles and hatchlings), and avoiding sunscreen with “oxybenzone” or sprays that pollute the sand where turtles nest. Small steps by one add up to large impacts by many. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.