Starting today, hundreds of volunteers will begin heading to the beach every morning just before sunrise in search of tracks left by some exciting visitors: female sea turtles coming ashore under the cloak of darkness to lay their eggs.
May 1 marks the start of sea turtle nesting season in the southeast United States; it’s the only time of year when these animals return to dry sand after spending almost their entire lives in the ocean. Female sea turtles tend to return to the same stretch of beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs. After hatching, baby sea turtles must dig their way out of the sand and sprint to the surf while avoiding predators ranging from foxes and raccoons to sea birds and ghost crabs.
The dedicated volunteers who walk these beaches every morning look for signs of new sea turtle nests so that they can monitor and protect the nest sites and track how many turtles hatch. Yet on most walks, these volunteers find more trash on the beach than sea turtle tracks.
While many man-made obstacles—from coastal development and artificial lighting to fishing and hunting—threaten sea turtles, trash is one threat that travels great distances and is present both on land and in the ocean. It is also entirely preventable.
We know that when trash items reach our ocean, they pose a severe ingestion risk for sea turtles, especially given the close resemblance of trash items like floating plastic grocery bags to a sea turtle’s favorite food: jellyfish. However, we don’t know much about the types of interactions sea turtles have with trash while coming ashore to nest.
Unfortunately, much of what we know about the interaction between sea turtles and trash is the result of studying dead and stranded sea turtles. In order to take a more proactive approach to learning about the potential for interaction between nesting sea turtles and trash, Ocean Conservancy is teaming up with the dedicated volunteers of the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project to pilot a new initiative.
Many of these volunteers already pick up trash on their morning turtle walks and even report what they find to Wrightsville Beach Keep It Clean. This season, volunteers will be equipped with an Ocean Conservancy data card for their sunrise turtle walks. The data card will help keep track of the individual trash items collected while patrolling for turtle tracks.
Once we receive these reports about turtle nests and trash, we can overlay the two data layers and start to learn more about the potential interaction turtles have with trash when they come ashore to nest. As we begin to learn more about stretches of beach more likely than others to yield trash-turtle interactions, we can implement mitigation strategies appropriate for that particular municipality or beach community. We are very excited to get this new initiative going and look forward to expanding this project along the East Coast.