Originally created 11/29/97

Turtles may be headed to Florida



BRUNSWICK, Ga. -- Georgia officials are concerned that a sharp decline in turtle nests along their shores could mean turtles are bypassing the state for warmer climes in Florida.

About 800 sea turtle nests were found in Georgia, a third less than normal.

"We are concerned by the low numbers, but we think it may be because 1997 was an off-year in the sea turtles' reproductive cycles," said Brad Winn, a wildlife biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Fluctuations in the numbers of sea turtle nests during the May-to-August nesting season are normal, Florida officials say, so it is difficult to see trends until several years of reports are received.

"The trend is no trend," said Blair Witherington, assistant research scientist at the Department of Environmental Protection's Florida Marine Research Institute at Tequesta. "It's impossible to detect a trend for one year."

In northeast Florida, nest sightings were about the same as they have been in years past, though officials say there is no yearly average.

"It differs from year to year," said Mary Duffy, president of Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch Inc. Nassau County reported 73 nests this year; 101 in 1996.

"As little as five years ago, we had 30 nests. It goes up and down from year to year," Ms. Duffy said.

Mort Hanson, who oversees sea turtle protection in Duval County, said females' reproduction has to do with nutrition. The turtles do not reproduce as much when they have not eaten well.

"The nesting is cyclic," Mr. Hanson said. "Every two to three years, the turtles come up to nest. In the three-year cycle, this would be the lowest year."

Mr. Hanson's area to watch for nests includes Mayport Naval Station, Hanna Park and Neptune, Atlantic and Jacksonville beaches. He said he and volunteers found 33 nests this year. Duval's total was 60, and that includes only areas where sea turtle nests are indexed, Mr. Witherington said. B

eaches on the barrier island along Heckscher Drive were included, he said. St. Johns County recorded 44 nests this year, Mr. Witherington said.

Ms. Duffy said Nassau County, which has less development along the coastline, often gets more nests than its neighbors to the immediate south. Turtles appear to prefer more desolate stretches of beach, officials said.

"When we first started doing this, the state thought there were no turtles nesting on Amelia Island," Ms. Duffy said. "In 1985, the first year we counted, we had 55 nests. They said, `Wow, we do have turtles.' When you compare with Jacksonville Beach, where all the development is, they may have 30 to 40 a year," she said.

Ms. Duffy said that different turtles visit different beaches each year, sometimes laying as many as four or five nests along the coast. "Nesting is in direct relation to energy consumption," she said. "They won't produce as many eggs if they are undernourished."