EMERALD ISLE — Sea turtle nest numbers are setting records in the southeastern United States this summer, and Carteret County is no exception.
National Park Service officials at Cape Lookout National Seashore said Tuesday the record has already been broken there, with 404 established nests and additional nests likely through September. The previous record was 352, set in 2016.
In Emerald Isle, according to sea turtle team coordinator Dale Baquer, there have been 32 nests spotted as of Tuesday, with roughly six weeks left in the normal nesting season. At this pace, Ms. Baquer said, the town stands “a good chance” of breaking the record of 52 set in 2016.
The nests need around 60 days of incubation before hatching, with some laid in May hatching now and later nests hatching well into November. Most nesting and hatching occurs at night.
“We’re excited,” Ms. Baquer said of the numbers, and the team members are looking forward to seeing lots of hatchings as summer turns to fall.
Ms. Baquer said there have been at least two incidents. She filed a report with town police July 7 after the second one, when a team member found someone had tampered with a nest on a beach in town.
In the first incident, before July 7, she said, “someone had put a chicken egg on top of the (turtle) eggs. That was really just a prank, and it had happened before in the past. But (in the July 7 incident),” she said, someone put a chicken egg under the turtle eggs, instead of on top of them.
“That was crossing the line,” she said. “I felt like we had to try to put a stop to it, so we filed the police report.”
Although the turtle’s eggs were fine, Ms. Baquer said, the action was necessary to let the public know tampering is not acceptable. In addition, it’s a federal offense that can result in a fine of up to $50,000 if a person is convicted.
“We’re trying to deter anyone else from doing it,” she said.
All species of sea turtles are protected under federal law.
Generally, according to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the average female lays 80-120 eggs per nest, with variation by species. The conservancy estimates only one in 1,000 hatchlings survives to adulthood.
Emerald Isle’s all-volunteer turtle team patrols the 12.5-mile beach every morning looking for nests. When they find one, they mark it and if it appears to be in danger from high tides or predators, they sometimes move it or protect it.
When nests show signs of hatching, the team members stand watch, sometimes through the night, and dig trenches to help the hatchlings make it from the beach to the ocean.
At Cape Lookout, the National Park Service reported in a press release that the tremendous number of nests resulted in more beach than usual being closed to driving.
“While the closures only last about fifteen days, they will vary and change based on the incubation periods of the nests,” Cape Lookout Superintendent Jeff West said. “We will put in temporary bypass routes when we can, but access to ocean side beaches will be more restricted than normal for the next two months.”
Currently, there are 26.8 of 45 miles of beach closed, leaving 19.2 miles of beach and 40 miles of backroad open to off-road vehicle traffic.
The NPS release stated the average loggerhead female will lay three to six nests during the May-to-September nesting season.
Nest numbers through Sunday elsewhere in the area, according to the N.C. Sea Turtle Nest Monitoring System, were five in Atlantic Beach, five in Indian Beach/Salter Path and 10 at Hammocks Beach. The organization’s website also lists the number of eggs and eggs lost at each beach in the state.
Dr. Matthew Godfrey, sea turtle biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said Wednesday most nests in the state are laid by loggerheads.
So far this year, he said, spotters have reported 1,770 loggerhead nests statewide, breaking the previous record of 1,622 in 2016, the same year the current Emerald Isle record was set.
“We’ll probably get more through August and perhaps even break 2,000, although it’s too soon to say,” Dr. Godfrey said.
According to a Sunday CBS News story, large numbers of nests are being reported in South Carolina and Georgia, as well.
“Researchers and volunteers in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina have cataloged more than 12,200 nests left by loggerheads,” the report states. “This is more than the previous highest count of 11,321 recorded three years ago.”
On Georgia’s beaches, 3,500 loggerhead nests have been recorded. The previous record for the state was 3,289 in 2016.
Biologist Mark Dodd, who heads the sea turtle recovery program in Georgia, said the final count will likely reach 4,000 nests by the end of August.
The S.C. Sea Turtle Nest Monitoring System listed 7,706 nests, so far.
In the CBS report, Dr. Dodd attributed the recent nesting records to two conservation measures introduced decades ago, including officials closely monitoring and protecting sea turtle nests and a mandate requiring shrimp boats to equip their nets with escape hatches. North and South Carolina also require turtle excluder devices on shrimp trawlers.
In North Carolina, Dr. Godfrey didn’t disagree with Dr. Dodd’s reasoning.
“We’re not entirely sure why this is such a big year, but perhaps it reflects the protections enacted a few decades ago, to protect nesting females and their incubating eggs on our beaches,” he said. “The age of maturity of loggerheads is estimated to be more than 30 years, so it would take that long to see results of protections of incubating eggs on beaches.”
Ms. Baquer said DNA studies seem to indicate nesting cycles peak about every three years, which would put the Emerald Isle numbers right on time to soar and perhaps break the town’s record.
She also said there have been 1,800 “false crawls” reported in North Carolina. Those indicate turtles who come out of the ocean to nest, but are unsuccessful. Although many are thought to be the result of “natural” causes, other reasons include too much light, the presence of predators and the presence of humans.
For more information about the Emerald Isle Sea Turtle Program, go to eiseaturtlepatrol.org/.
For current information on the beach closures at Cape Lookout National Seashore, go to nps.gov/calo/planyourvisit/wildlife-closures.htm or contact the park’s information desk at 252-728-2250.
Reporter Mike Shutak contributed to this article.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.