Nesting breeds anxiety

Loggerhead turtle nests now dot the beaches of two Carolinas, a welcome sight for turtle enthusiasts who are hoping to bring the threatened species back from the edge.

But the number of N.C. and S.C. nests are down this year, according to officials with the S.C. United Turtle Enthusiasts and turtle protection volunteers in North Carolina.

And while the numbers typically rise and fall in cycles, environmental experts and a vast network of volunteers in both Carolinas are concerned the lower numbers indicate that coastal development and human interaction continue to threaten the survival of the protected species.

Sea turtles have been around for more than 100 million years and survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, scientists say. The loggerhead is the most common sea turtle along the Carolinas' coasts. They nest about every 12 days and can lay a clutch of 80 to 100 eggs, each the size of a table-tennis ball, during nesting season, which lasts through August.

"They are very endangered right now. Hopefully they won't be extinct; that's why we're doing these programs," said Gloria Hillenburg, coordinator of the Sea Turtle Protection Program for Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. "Right now, things are a little iffy. Each island needs to have an ordinance about beach cabanas and lighting, and they need to enforce it. The trash that is in the ocean, the sea turtles try to eat it and it cuts off their air."

Reports from South Carolina and Georgia show the number of loggerhead turtle nests are down this year, said Wilson Laney, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services South Atlantic Fisheries Coordinator.

"It's cyclical," Laney said. "Sometimes it is up, and sometimes it's down."

Nesting numbers also are down in North Carolina, according to officials with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resource.

In South Carolina, there were 719 nests reported through June, compared to 1,462 nests in that period last year.

"This year is is going to be one of our lowest years," said DuBose Griffin, state sea turtle coordinator with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

"We had two big years in the past two years, but 2007 is going to a low year."

In addition to the cyclical trends, the turtle population continues to decline in South Carolina by about 3 percent each year, Griffin saids. Worldwide, the loggerhead turtle population continues to fall - which has prompted the organization of turtle stranding networks and local volunteer groups.

"Last year, the SCUTE patrol area, including the two state parks, had 94 nests and it's doubtful that we will get that many this year," Laney said.

"Sea turtle nesting does tend to fluctuate every year, so we don't get overly concerned if nesting drops off for a season - you have to look at the long-term trends.

"But, I believe long-term trends do show a slight decline, so it's vital that everyone from sea turtle volunteers to the beach going public do their part."

At least eight nests are now being protected at Myrtle Beach State Park, Wilson said.

Seven were relocated to the park from other areas of Horry County, Laney said. Only one nest, so far, has been laid naturally at the park.

The nests were moved due to some beach erosion in Horry County, Laney said. The erosion reported across the Carolinas has made it difficult for the turtles to nest this year on local beaches.

"A lot of the nests are down below the high tide line," Laney said. "There were also lighting issues. Horry County does not have a lighting ordinance, so we were afraid the hatchlings would go in the wrong direction."

In addition to fewer nests, at least 57 turtles have stranded in South Carolina this year. Some have died from debilitated turtle syndrome, which makes the turtle appear emaciated and lethargic. In North Carolina, 111 turtles have stranded this year.

"For sea turtles, any way you look at it, their numbers are down," Griffin said. "If you look at the southeastern United States, or the world, their numbers are in decline."

Phil and Mary Schneider, turtle volunteers in Georgetown County, have helped relocate nests this year throughout Georgetown County.

The Schneiders help coordinate about 50 SCUTE turtle volunteers in Litchfield and Pawleys Island.

Those volunteers have been patrolling a 55-mile stretch between Little River and Georgetown for about 22 years.

To improve the turtles' chances of survival, volunteers place orange tags on forgotten beach chairs and tents on Pawleys Island, to remind the owners to place them in a safe location at night so the turtles don't become entangled in them.

Phil Schneider said the average number of eggs in the nests found this year is lower, which indicates that younger turtles are nesting on the beaches of Pawleys Island.

"It could be young turtles, because as they mature, they lay more eggs," he said.