Editorial: Resolve to help sea turtles showing results
THE HATCHING OF dozens of tiny loggerhead sea turtles at the north end of Virginia Beach’s Oceanfront early in August was cause for celebration.
It was a delight for the people whose dedication had them in the right place at the right time to witness one of nature’s miracles. The mother loggerhead had laid 154 eggs in a hole on the beach two months earlier, covered them and dragged herself laboriously back down the sand.
When she reached the ocean, she swam away gracefully. The beach is likely where she was hatched decades ago, and she probably won’t return until she’s ready to lay more eggs.
Sea turtles spend almost their entire lives in the sea. Their time on the beach, unless they are injured, is limited to females laying eggs and that first, crucial trek when the inch-long babies hatch and claw their way out of their buried nest and try to find the ocean.
That August “boil,” as the emergence of many baby turtles at once is called, was also evidence that people working together — at all levels — can make a difference in protecting our natural world.
Government action has been important in the survival of sea turtles. The populations of these majestic and ancient reptiles had been dwindling alarmingly by the latter decades of the 20th century. They’d been killed for their meat, skin and shells. They’d been entangled in fishnets. Rapid coastal development destroyed their nesting grounds. Climate change, with rising sea levels, has claimed more nesting sites. Plastic trash in the oceans takes its toll on turtles.
The 1973 federal Endangered Species Act has helped stabilize the sea turtle population. Five of the world’s seven sea turtle species come into Virginia and North Carolina coastal waters, and all five of those are now protected under the ESA.
Studies and the experiences of people who work with turtles in areas including Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks suggest that things are looking up. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore recently reported a record-breaking number of nests – 326 – this year, the third new record in five years.
But the protections of the ESA can’t be taken for granted, with the Trump administration’s recent announcement of major changes to the law, including allowing economic costs to be considered in decisions about protecting species and ignoring the future effects of climate change. Both those changes could make it tougher to protect critical nesting sites. Conservation groups are already preparing lawsuits.
That’s why it’s even more important than ever that conservation groups and places such as the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach and the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island are working diligently to protect sea turtles. And it’s important that volunteers help them in their crucial, often painstaking work.
Staff and volunteers from the Virginia Aquarium played key roles in the successful hatching at the Oceanfront in August. Aquarium staff watched the mother lay her eggs and then moved them where they would be safe from dangers such as trash trucks that she knew nothing about. They protected the nest with tape, signs and screen, and kept a “nest sitting” vigil to make sure that when the hatchlings emerged, they didn’t get confused.
Artificial lights on the beaches, among other things, can cause baby turtles to crawl the wrong way. While turtle nests are fairly common now in more secluded areas such as False Cape State Park and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the infrequent nests on resort beaches are more at risk.
Volunteers help with other things such as rescuing turtles that are stranded because of injury, sudden cold or other problems, and working at fishing piers to rescue turtles that get hooked.
Even casual beachgoers can help by following commonsense suggestions about keeping lights at and near the beach to a minimum, removing trash, chairs and other objects from the beach, respecting marked nests and reporting turtles that need help.
If people respect and understand nature and work together to minimize the negative effects of human civilization on the nature around us, good things can happen.