Myrtle Beach State Park ranger Ann Malys Wilson isn’t worried about a quiet sea turtle season – which ends in August – following a record year in 2013.
Wilson and a group of volunteers handle sea turtle nests from 82nd Avenue North in Myrtle Beach to Surfside Beach, and have one loggerhead sea turtle nest this year compared to 30 last year.
Nest numbers are down across the state, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources which has recorded 1,697 loggerhead sea turtle nests on the South Carolina coast compared to 5,198 in 2013. In Horry and Georgetown Counties last year there were 234 nests. So far in 2014, there are 58, according to DNR records.
“We’re in a natural lull,” she said. “We’ve had three really great years for the state. Turtles don’t nest every year.”
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Wilson hopes additional federal protections announced this month which designated miles of coastline, the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico as critical habitat for the species, help the sea turtle population and lead to more record years, though she said she doesn’t expect exceptionally high numbers in Horry County.
“You have to remember, last year there were more than 5,000 nests in the state and I had an incredible year at 30,” she said. “Look at where we live. I have really horrible sea turtle habitat to be honest. There’s no lights out in Horry County, tons of people on the beach. And [historically] the further north, the less nests you have.”
When Wilson didn’t receive crawl calls from volunteers and authorities spotting the distinctive markings on the sand, indicating a sea turtle marched up to the dunes this spring, she initially thought the season might be slow to start following a cold winter. Though she said anything can happen, Wilson said she’s not expecting a spike in nesting at the end of the summer.
“We’re in July now,” she said. “Usually the season is done by mid-August. We thought perhaps numbers would start increasing, but not anymore.”
Loggerhead sea turtles now swim in federally protected waters across 685 miles of beaches from North Carolina to Mississippi and 300,000 square miles in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The water and land were designated as a critical habitat for the endangered species this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
It’s the largest federal protection of its kind and will require federal agencies to consult with NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before shipping or building in the areas to prevent removing or marring features necessary for the species’ survival.
Loggerhead turtles use 1,531 miles of beaches in the United States, yet some of the coastal areas included in the critical habitat aren’t currently home to the species. Including these unoccupied areas is a prospective approach, said Amanda Keledjian, a marine biologist at Oceana, an ocean conservationist nonprofit organization.
“They were included for the purposes of climate change and perhaps will become even more important in the future,” Keledjian said. “We’re very excited that such a large area was designated. That’s a big step for turtles.”
Conservation groups sued NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year when the federal environmental agencies didn’t create a critical habitat for the loggerheads the year before. The agencies had been legally required to establish the region by 2012. The parties settled the lawsuit, which required the agencies to draft a proposal for the habitat last July and a finalized version this July.
There are more than 600 threatened or endangered species with critical habitats. These areas have environments that are naturally stocked with the elements necessary to preserve the species. Removing or marring those features is banned.
Wilson said she is still looking at the new regulations and isn’t sure yet how specifically it might help the species, but said it’s good news.
“It’s an extra layer of protection for loggerheads,” she said.
Michelle Pate, a wildlife biologist with S.C. DNR, said the habitat designation isn’t creating any new restrictions or providing more authority for NOAA or the USFWS, but means any federal projects in the outlined areas “must be shown to not adversely modify the habitat.”
Wilson said the possibility of encountering a sea turtle in Horry County is low when compared to beaches south of the Grand Strand, particularly Florida, and said the main goal at Myrtle Beach State Park is educational outreach.
“For us, I think the most important thing we can do is to teach people how to have a positive impact when they go to the beach, whether or not they ever see a sea turtle,” she said.
That basically means cleaning up before packing in, she said, by filling in dug holes, smashing sand creations and picking up garbage.
Walking on designated paths or boardwalks and steering clear of the dunes is also recommended.
“Not only is it critical habitat, but it’s our first line of defense,” Wilson said. “And when there’s renourishment, you’re talking about tens of millions of dollars.”
McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Stephanie Haven contributed to this report.