A loggerhead turtle hatchling headed for the sea. Hurricane Irma wiped out large numbers of leatherback and loggerhead turtle nests in Florida last month, significantly denting this year’s projections for a healthy population. CreditGustavo Stahelin/University of Central Florida
A damaged and partially exposed nest, lower right, in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge after major erosion from Hurricane Irma. CreditGustavo Stahelin/University of Central Florida
In addition to wiping out homes and businesses, Hurricane Irma swept away a large number of sea turtle nests as it tore across Florida last month.
The state is a center of sea turtle nesting, and this year was developing into a very encouraging year for the endangered leatherback turtles, the threatened loggerheads and green turtles, said Kate Mansfield, a marine scientist and sea turtle biologist at the University of Central Florida. The hurricane suddenly dashed those hopes.
An official statewide picture of the damage to sea turtles won’t be available until Nov. 30, because the nesting season runs through at least the end of this month, said Simona Ceriani, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. But it’s clear that nests in many areas of the state were destroyed by Irma, she said.
The northwest Atlantic region is one of the world’s two largest loggerhead nesting areas, and 89 percent of those animals are hatched in Florida, Dr. Ceriani said, citing a 2015 assessment.
At the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Cape Canaveral, more than half of the green turtle nests laid this season and a quarter of the loggerheads were lost as the storm tore up beaches, said Dr. Mansfield, whose program monitors turtles in the refuge.
Endangered leatherbacks lay their eggs earlier in the season, so none of their nests were lost in the refuge. Sea turtles, which take 25 to 30 years to reach reproductive age, lay their eggs in the open beach, under vegetation or at the base of a dune. The hurricane eroded key nesting beaches, washing away nests or flooding them with rainwater or seawater, Dr. Mansfield said. Along two stretches of beach south of Cape Canaveral, more than 90 percent of incubating loggerhead nests were destroyed by the storm, representing about 25 percent of the season’s total.