This year has brought some of the worst storms in recent memory to our southern coasts, impacting countless people who work and live near the ocean. But these storms have been rough for another group as well: sea turtles.
In Texas, hurricane Harvey forced volunteers and staff at Sea Turtle Inc. to dig up nests that were laid earlier in the year to collect the eggs and move them to incubators to save them from drowning. Baby sea turtles, who had already survived hatching and the race to the sea, were thrown to the beach once again, defenseless against the storm and any predators that may have come their way. Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard helped ferry washed-up sea turtles who were low on energy back out to sea after major storms.
Hurricane Irma battered both coasts of Florida, bringing record storm surges that flooded beaches across the state, putting sea turtle nests in danger of flooding or washing away. What began as a record year for green sea turtle nests on the northeastern coast of Florida ended with more than half of the nests laid at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge being washed into the sea. Loggerheads nesting on two stretches of beach south of Cape Canaveral face nest losses of more than 90 percent, or about 25 percent of the season’s total.
Residents in storm-affected areas began looking for ways to protect their oceanfront property, which include turning to seawalls. An emergency authorization by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection will allow individuals in St. Johns County to build new seawalls without scientific analysis of the impacts these structures will have. Undoubtedly these new structures will impact sea turtle nesting habitat by eroding beaches and putting a barrier between turtles and their critical nesting habitat.
The overall impact of these storms on sea turtle populations won’t be known for quite some time, but there is something that can be done to help sea turtles in the Southeast. The Trump administration is currently sitting on a proposed rule that would save as many as 2,500 endangered and threatened sea turtles from drowning in shrimp trawls every year. These 2,500 sea turtles have already survived the gauntlet of hatching and making it to the sea. The rule would require Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) – metal grates inserted into shrimp nets that allow sea turtles and other ocean wildlife to escape – in U.S. skimmer, pusher-head and wing net shrimp trawls. Less than half of the U.S. shrimp fleet is currently required to use TEDs, however, the proposed rule would extend the requirement to about 5,800 other boats in the region that are currently exempted. The finalized rule was supposed to be released June 15, 2017, but the administration has delayed for unknown reasons.
This rule is an easy win for sea turtles. The Trump administration should finalize this proposed rule to ensure that sea turtles that call the southeastern United States home are around for years to come.