Joined by the University of Florida's Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission, turtle conservationists worldwide have been emphasizing the critical role turtles play in the health and fertility of ecosystems through which they travel.
Loggerheads and green turtles in the Gulf of Mexico clip back beds of sea grass that foster new grass buds, according to Dr. Anne Meylan, a senior research scientist at the commission's research institute. They keep the undersea tidy, clean and protective for fish, sponges, corals and other desirable residents, she said.
"Without them," she said, "the ecosystems wind up as detritus."
"This approach requires grazers," Meylan said. "Turtles and sea urchins perform as such. There are many more sea urchins, but they are small, and don't eat nearly as much as 300-pound turtles."
Data gathered by the commission from the 2006 nesting season, which extended from May to November, revealed that the number of loggerhead nest was down about 22 percent from the previous year.
Loggerheads are the most common turtle species in Florida, and they represent about 90 percent of the world's total. But they are considered as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
More than 52,000 nests were counted on Florida beaches last year. Of those, 423 were on Casey Key, 174 in Venice, 304 on Manasota Key and 299 on Lido, Longboat and Siesta keys in northern Sarasota County. The Manasota Key number was counted by the Coastal Wildlife Club, a volunteer organization. The commission tallied the other totals.
Loggerhead strandings in 2004 and 2005 were the highest since 1989, the first year records were kept by the commission, Meylan said. Some 800 loggerhead carcasses were washed up on Florida's shores in 2005. But that may be just a fraction of the true count, because they sink to the bottom after being caught by fishermen. Shrimp lines and longlines used to catch tuna, sharks and swordfish in deep waters off the coast of Southwest Florida kill most turtles.
Sarasota County in 1997 adopted a sea turtle protection ordinance that Meylan described as the most effective in the state. It requires reduced security lighting along beaches during the seven-month season. An amendment in 2003 prohibited furniture on beaches overnight.
Turtle have to fight shrimp lines and longlines at sea to stay alive. On land, crows and automobiles may be their worst enemies. Crows clean newly laid eggs out of nests often before the turtles have a chance to cover them.
A recent study reported by The New York Times revealed that 2,000 to 4,000 aquatic turtles were crushed to death by vehicles on a highway strip between two lakes near Tallahassee in a 12-month period. A disproportionate number were females with eggs.
"Even if we do a good job of protecting turtles here in Florida," said Meylan, "trouble can turn up elsewhere."
She said that catching turtles to eat their meat also endangeres them. The practice is "miniscule" in Florida, she said. But some Caribbean countries allow turtles to be caught and eaten.
Roads could be made safer by adding fencing that diverts turtles to drainage culverts, she suggested.
"More communities could follow Sarasota County's lead and introduce enforced protection programs," she added.
By GERALD A. ROGOVIN