With a successful 2022 that skirted Hurricane Ian, this year’s turtle nesting season opens with a new obstacle along Florida’s shores: sargassum.
Turtle nesting season in Florida kicks off Monday and runs until Oct. 31, but when Hurricane Ian made landfall on Sept. 28 in southwest Florida, nesting season was nearly complete, according to Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium.
Aquarium officials found a limited number of damaged nests, and none of the research nests were damaged. Officials also found no evidence of newly vulnerable nests during the last week of August.
What has turtle advocates concerned this year are thick mats of seaweed that could become a challenge for female sea turtles to navigate.
What sea turtle species are in Florida?
Five species of sea turtles swim in Florida’s waters and nest on its beaches. All are either endangered or threatened, which makes it illegal to harm, harass or kill the turtles, their eggs or hatchlings.
The federal Endangered Species Act lists the green, leatherback, hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley turtle as endangered. The loggerhead, the most common sea turtle in Florida, is listed as threatened.
A successful year
Florida leads the nation each year with tens of thousands of turtle nests. Along the coast, sea turtles annually make 40,000 to 84,000 nests.
In 2022, loggerhead turtles had another successful nesting season with 116,765 nests, about 20,000 more than the year before. Decades of conservation measures, such as harvest bans, safer fishing nets and habitat protection, has driven much of the success.
Large amounts of sargassum, or seaweed, are projected to hit Florida beaches this summer.
When in the ocean, this floating mat of seaweed provides a haven and food for sea turtles during the first few years of their lives. The sargassum is sea turtle hatchlings’ first offshore destination after they emerge from their nests.
When on the beach, though, piles of the seaweed could prevent female sea turtles from finding a spot to nest. Once ashore, large amounts of sargassum also could become an obstacle for hatchlings as they head toward the water.
SOURCE USA TODAY Network reporting and research; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Statewide Nesting Beach Survey data; Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium; Sea Turtle Conservancy