They Grow Up So Slowly: Studying Sea Turtles in the Southeast U.S.

Michael D. Arendt, SCDNR/MRD/MRRI

28 February 2020

Sea turtles have been federally protected in U.S. waters for >40 years; however, in the context of life history, they have only been protected for half to two generations depending on the species. Independent of species, sea turtles hatch on terrestrial beaches coupled with ontogenetic shifts in marine and estuarine developmental habitats that span ocean basins. Globally, multi-decadal nesting data exist for most species at key rookeries; however, few studies monitor crucial metrics that facilitate translation of annual nest counts to nesting females. Likewise, annual hatching success only indicates initial cohort strength, an annual value that will be reshaped by decades of survival (or lack thereof) prior to reaching reproductive maturity. Conversely, in-water research provides access to residual cohort members which can be used to infer important demographic data such as size distribution (the best field proxy for recruitment), sex ratio (since only females crawl ashore to nest), and genetic origin (to assess the representativeness of size and sex ratio). Unfortunately, given large time and monetary investments, few long-term in-water sea turtle surveys exist globally, and even fewer sample study areas >50 km2. As such, a multi-state coastal trawl survey initiated in 2000 by the SCDNR in partnership with the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service/Sea Grant is a unique and important data set for assessing population change (and response to recovery actions) for sea turtles in the Southeast U.S.  This presentation will highlight key findings from the past 21 years, with concluding emphasis on future direction.