Solutions for Sea Turtles
In an effort to help more endangered sea turtles survive, more than 200 people attended the inaugural N.C. Sea Turtle Symposium at UNCW in January.
Imagine the positive impact on the world if you could bring together some of the brightest experts to share their best practices on how to save an endangered species. That was the brainstorm of Brunswick County’s Debra Allen more than a year ago.
Allen worked throughout 2022 to make it happen this January, creating North Carolina’s very first Sea Turtle Symposium, at UNC Wilmington (UNCW). Hundreds of sea turtle patrol volunteers statewide benefited, and so too will the thousands of threatened sea turtles who are born on North Carolina’s beaches annually.
“Sharing challenges and successful solutions with other coastlands saves more sea turtles,” Allen strongly believes. So, after attending regional and international educational meetings where she learned many great ways sea turtle volunteers meet challenges, she says she was driven to create one specific to the laws and protocols of North Carolina.
The coordinator of the Ocean Isle Beach Sea Turtle Protection Organization, Allen reached out to Dr. Ken Halanych of the Center for Marine Science at UNCW to partner with her and her sponsors — the Sunset, Holden and Emerald Isle beach sea turtle patrols.
“He felt it was a good fit,” Allen says, so she sat down with Carmel Zetts, Pat and Alice Cusack and Dale Baquer to develop workshop topics. “We invited the Sea Turtle Conservancy and Loggerhead Marinelife Center from Florida, the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehab, North Carolina Coastal Federation and the U.S. Wildlife Commission. Thank goodness everyone was happy to participate.”
There are many reasons sea turtles are at risk of vanishing as a species, Allen says. She cites land, sea and sky predators as a major problem. But there are human intervention concerns that need attention, such as sea turtle entanglement in fishing nets or simply being snagged on the hooks of anglers on fishing piers. Something as mundane as taking a flash photo of a just-born hatchling can disorient a baby and send it into the dunes instead of the surf.
The organizing team developed the symposium to address these and other pressing issues affecting the lifespan of sea turtles.
“There are solutions,” Allen says. “We wanted to bring people together to educate and address them.”
The key topics of the symposium included sea turtle nest protection procedures for predator management, offshore and beach rescue and rehabilitation, properly photographing sea turtle hatchlings, volunteer training methods and educating the public.
Take the problem of sea turtles getting hooked off of piers, for instance. Valerie Tovar educated the attendees on that issue. She is the conservation coordinator of the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, Florida, and heads up their Responsible Pier Initiative.
Tovar says the initiative is a first-of-its-kind program designed to work directly with fishermen on piers.
“This is important because it allows first responders to have the tools needed for a successful rescue of an entangled, hooked or injured sea turtle,” Tovar says. “So far, we’ve had over 1,080 reported interactions with a success rate of 77 percent.”
Tovar offers that if the volunteers want to have the program brought to their pier, she is available to assist. “The best way to make it successful is to have a consistent presence on the pier and to have the local angler population on our side. It is most effective when we all work together,” she says.
Allen lauds Florida for leading the way on sea turtle protections, and that is why she and her team invited key representatives from the Sunshine State to present at the symposium. Emily Asp Wooley from Gainesville is the senior turtle-friendly lighting specialist for the Sea Turtle Conservancy there. There were several takeaways she wanted the Tarheel volunteers to employ.
“Landward sources of light disrupt natural cues that sea turtles use to navigate on the beach, which can lead to mortality,” Wooley says. “We can help mitigate the threat of artificial lights by removing unnecessary lights and following some simple rules. Keep it low. Keep it shielded. Keep it long (in wavelength).”
She continues, “Sea turtle–friendly lighting not only helps sea turtles, but it is also beneficial for other wildlife and improves human health. And a property’s safety and security do not need to be compromised in order to protect sea turtles. Both can be achieved through friendly lighting applications. Light pollution is manageable!”
Ellen Sheehan of Ocean Isle Beach addressed the best way picture-takers can minimize the impact on both nesting and hatchling turtles by using low-light photography on cell phones and cameras. She is the owner and lead instructor of The Photographers Learning Studio.
Sheehan instructs how to replace cell phone light by activating a red (long wavelength) color filter. She explains that using longer focal length lenses rather than wide angle and engaging low F-stop lenses with the use of a tripod are effective ways to go.
“Keep your distance. Minimize artificial lighting and your movements and noise,” she says. “And when using lighting, use amber or red very sparingly and always indirectly.”
Allen recaps, “The public can help us save sea turtles by reducing plastic use and recycling and by volunteering with or donating to a local sea turtle group. They can also reduce artificial lighting on homes and businesses on the beach.”
Allen says she thinks the symposium aided in motivating “wildlife warriors with a passion for sea turtles” and that there will be future symposiums in North Carolina.
Photos by Ellen Sheehan