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Sea turtles: Nesting numbers near records lows

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

After three record-breaking years, sea turtle nesting on local beaches is having one of its worst seasons in 30 years.

Jeff McClary, co-founder of South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts, said there are 38 confirmed turtle nests in the 60-mile stretch of beach between North Inlet and North Myrtle Beach this year and he expects to reach a total of around 70. There were 224 nests last year and 205 in 2012.

“It’s up and down,” McClary said. “They started about a month later than they did last year. I just don’t want them to run later because the water gets cold and that becomes a problem. Hatchlings get cold stunt; they hatch during the day; and all kinds of different stuff happens. It’s just a low year. Our previous low was 43. We’ll beat that.”

SCUTE’s nest sightings so far this year include: Hobcaw, 11; DeBordieu Colony, 4; Pawleys Island, 2; South Litchfield, 6; Litchfield By The Sea, 2; North Litchfield, 1; Huntington Beach State Park, 8; Garden City, 1; Myrtle Beach State Park, 1; Briarcliff Acres, 1; North Myrtle Beach, 1.

The 2013 season set a record with 5,198 nests along the South Carolina coast, topping the 4,628 in 2012. Those were the highest years since 1982. Michelle Pate, coordinator of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Marine Turtle Conservation Program, said there are only 1,333 reported nests in the state so far this year.

Betsy Brabson, SCUTE coordinator in DeBordieu since 1995 with her husband, Bill, said this is the second worst year she has seen. “The whole East Coast is down,” said Brabson, who was presented the Ed Drane Volunteerism Award at the International Sea Turtle Society’s 33rd annual symposium last year.

She walks the beaches of DeBordieu, Hobcaw Barony and North Island and has counted 15 surviving nests after one was plundered by a coyote. The three beaches had 108 nests last year.

“We’re down considerably,” she said. “I expect we’ll end up with under 25, but we’re not particularly alarmed because turtle nesting goes in cycles.”

She said biologists from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources theorized that the cold winter reduced turtle food sources and they did not build up as much fat as they needed to be reproductively healthy. “They are kind of guessing,” Brabson said. “It is cyclical, and we are going to have some off years. This is a major one.”

Volunteers are making every effort to protect this year’s nests from predators along the six miles of DeBordieu and Hobcaw beaches where 30 to 50 percent of the SCUTE nests are typically found. “Hobcaw Beach is very remote,” Brabson said, “and a couple coyotes are residents down there. That is just heartbreaking to lose any nest to a coyote, and we are going to extraordinary measures to protect them. It’s a lot of work for volunteers to dig trenches and put a wire box on top of a nest. The coyote digs and keeps running into wire. They will get smart and dig deeper. We’re just trying to protect the few nests that we’ve got.”

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