Researchers say sea turtles rebounded from a slump last year to deliver one of the strongest summer nesting seasons on record on beaches from the Carolinas to Florida.
Along the unspoiled beaches of Cumberland Island in Southern Georgia, wildlife biologist Doug Hoffman and his two interns kept busy this summer finding, cataloging and protecting a whopping 570 nests that giant loggerhead sea turtles had filled with eggs.
"It's a lot of physical effort," said Hoffman, a biologist for the National Park Service on federally managed Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast. "You're talking about being in the sun, hauling equipment and digging holes, pounding stakes."
All the hard work seems to be paying off.
Preliminary numbers from Georgia show scientists and volunteers counted a record 2,292 loggerhead nests during the season that runs from May through August. It's the fifth season in six years that Georgia has surpassed its previous record.
Sea turtle experts in Georgia say the new nesting numbers reinforce their belief that loggerhead sea turtles are making a comeback after 37 years of protection as a federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
"Every big year we get, the more confident we are in that conclusion that we're in a recovery period," said Mark Dodd, the biologist who heads the sea turtle recovery program for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. "So we feel really good about it."
In Florida, where the nesting season doesn't end until October, turtles are also breaking records. More than 12,000 endangered green sea turtles have dug nests along the beach at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, said Kate Mansfield, head of the Marine Turtle Research Group at the University of Central Florida. It's a new record for the refuge.
The high numbers bode well for conservation efforts put in place to aid a species that was nearly extinct in the 1980s. Mansfield said these same Florida beaches had fewer than 50 green sea turtle nests annually in the 1980s.
Still, Mansfield says turtles need to live 25 or more years before they start to reproduce, so it will be decades before researchers know for certain if current nesting trends are signs of long-lasting recovery.
"It's promising and exciting, but the long term perspective is needed and helps put what we see now in a broader perspective," she said. "For the past five years we've had good years, but we have to look at this over 25-plus years."
Loggerhead sea turtles, which grow to weigh up to 300 pounds, dig their nests on beaches from the Carolinas to Florida. Preliminary nesting numbers show a strong nesting comeback in both North Carolina and South Carolina this summer after numbers dropped by nearly half in 2014. Georgia suffered a similar slump last year, with nest numbers dipping to 1,201.
Dodd and other experts weren't alarmed, noting that female loggerheads don't lay eggs every year and sometimes take two or even three years off from nesting.
Georgia has just 100 miles of coastline, far less than neighboring states. But the number of turtle nests in Georgia has exploded in recent years.
The state averaged 1,036 nests per year from the year counting started in 1989 through 2009. Then Georgia saw a four-year streak of record highs from 2010 to 2013, when loggerhead nests shot from 1,760 to 2,289.
Researchers have credited two specific conservation efforts with helping the species rebound. Turtle nests discovered by government experts and volunteers on state beaches get covered with a mesh that protects the eggs inside from hogs, raccoons and other predators.
Also, shrimp boats trawling in U.S. waters have been required since 1987 to use fishing nets equipped with special trapdoors that allow sea turtles to escape.
Now scientists say Georgia's loggerhead sea turtle population is within reach of a 50-year recovery goal set when the species was first listed as threatened in 1978. The goal: 2,800 nests by the year 2028.
"We're not that far away," Dodd said. "Even 10 years ago if you'd asked me I would have said I can't see us getting there anytime in the future."