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Greenville Business Magazine

Sea turtle season begins in South Carolina

May 01, 2020 02:27PM ● By David Dykes
(Photo provided)

CHARLESTON COUNTY — Sea turtle nesting season in South Carolina has begun right on cue.

South Carolina Department of Natural Resources biologists said the start of sea turtle nesting began with a nest laid April 30-May 1 on Lighthouse Island.

Located within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, the site of South Carolina’s densest sea turtle nesting, the loggerhead nest was discovered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife sea turtle technician Billy Shaw.

South Carolina’s official sea turtle nesting season runs from May 1 to Oct. 31 each year, and this year’s season begins right on time after an early start in 2019. Nesting in South Carolina typically starts soon after Georgia’s first nesting report, which occurred on Saturday, April 25.

“Staff and volunteers are very excited to celebrate the official opening of sea turtle season,” said Michelle Pate, SCDNR sea turtle biologist. “This year has been an especially difficult one for all of us globally, and we welcome the seasonal return of these ancient creatures back to South Carolina's nesting beaches.” 

Pate added she expects a productive season, though not reaching the level of nesting seen in 2019.

In 2019, South Carolina registered a record-breaking season in which sea turtles laid the largest number of nests recorded in a season. Volunteers and biologists counted 8,802 nests in South Carolina, which represented a 37 percent increase over the previous record set in 2016.

Last season also followed an unusually low year in 2018, in which only 2,767 nests were counted due to cyclical nesting patterns, state officials said.

Because nesting exacts a high energy toll on the large reptiles, female sea turtles do not come ashore to lay eggs every year, the officials said. 

The pattern results in nesting fluctuations from year to year, but as a whole, sea turtle nest numbers across the Southeast have trended up over the past decade. That makes biologists across the region optimistic these threatened reptiles are beginning to recover after several decades of conservation efforts.

State officials said the ongoing COVID-19 global health crisis is expected to reshape sea turtle nest protection efforts this year. 

Typically, over 1,300 volunteers from 30 different nest protection programs spend the summer months patrolling South Carolina’s beaches each morning for crawls, the telltale tracks left by a female sea turtle as it trundles ashore. 

Volunteers and biologists meticulously identify, count, and protect these nests throughout the season until they hatch, after which time nests are inventoried to collect additional data. Due to current guidelines meant to safeguard employee and community safety, the volunteer network has been restricted until beaches across the state fully reopen and state employees are permitted to return to the field, state officials said.

Four sea turtle species nest on South Carolina beaches: loggerheads, greens, Kemp’s ridleys, and leatherbacks. 

Loggerhead nests comprise the vast majority of the state’s total number each year, but 2019 saw 20 green sea turtle nests and one Kemp’s ridley nest (only the fourth in the state’s history). All four sea turtle species are classified as endangered or threatened and are protected under the Endangered Species Act, in addition to local and state ordinances.

Sea turtle clutches average 120 eggs and hatch after approximately 60 days. Nesting females might remain in South Carolina waters and continue to nest every two weeks, laying up to six nests per season. Throughout this stressful time, the turtles also abstain from eating.

State officials said South Carolina beachgoers can help the state’s sea turtles by keeping beaches clean, turning beachfront lights out to avoid disorienting turtles, and giving all sea turtles and nests a wide berth when encountered on the beach.

In addition, the officials urged beachgoers to:

  • Report all sick/injured/dead sea turtles and nest disturbances to the SCDNR at 1-800-922-5431 so that staff/volunteers can respond as soon as possible.
  • Respect boating laws and boat cautiously, especially in small tidal creeks where sea turtles like to feed. Boat strikes have emerged as the leading cause of death for sea turtles in South Carolina.
  • Keep artificial lights off the beach at night during nesting season – this includes beachfront property lights and flash photography, which can disorient nesting mothers and hatchlings.
  • Always observe sea turtles from a distance on the beach. Individuals who violate federal law by harming or interfering with sea turtles or their nests are subject to civil penalties of up to $25,000 and up to a year’s imprisonment.
  • Keep beaches and ocean clean by avoiding single-use plastics. Plastic bags and balloons are among the most common trash items found on South Carolina beaches and can cause injury or death when sea turtles mistake them for food.
  • Promote and support the state's program for continued conservation of sea turtles in South Carolina.