In ‘a conservation victory,’ 45 endangered sea turtles hatch on Texas beach, make it to the water

The presence of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles on an inland beach inside Matagorda Bay is exciting for conservationists who have seen survival rates fall in the past decade.

By Shelly BrisbinJuly 7, 2022 11:23 am,

Last month, conservationists found something surprising in the waters off Matagorda Bay’s Magnolia Beach: 45 Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings had made it off the beach and into the water. Experts say it’s the first time the endangered turtles have been found inside Matagorda Bay.

Pamela Plotkin, director of the Texas Sea Grant program and an associate research professor at Texas A&M, spoke with Texas Standard about what this means for the species. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit more about the significance of turtles hatching on this particular beach.

Pamela Plotkin: Well, it’s the first time in modern history that a sea turtle has nested on a beach inside Matagorda Bay. And if you look across the other areas in Texas, there’s only been one other record of a sea turtle, a Kemp’s ridley nesting inside a bay on a beach. And that was many years ago in Corpus Christi Bay.

It is unusual, but why is that significant for the sea turtle, or is it?

Well, we think it’s significant because it extends our information about what places are suitable for sea turtles nesting in Texas. And so it’s not just that this turtle decided to put her eggs on a beach inside Matagorda Bay, but that they survived and they hatched without, you know, anybody’s awareness.

So this means that efforts to try to save the sea turtle could be expanded?

Well, efforts have been expanded. And so any time you see a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nesting in Texas, it’s a conservation victory for the multiple organizations in Texas and Mexico that have been working tirelessly since the 1970s to save the species from extinction. And if you look at its trajectory, back in the mid 1980s, there were only a few hundred females left on this planet nesting in Mexico. And so since then, because of the efforts of folks at Texas Parks and Wildlife and National Park Service and our colleagues in Mexico, there has been a wonderful effort to protect the nests on beaches and to reduce the mortality of adults in the water.

And those efforts have paid off. And so every time we see a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nesting on a beach, it’s a success. And to see them expanding into new areas is further exciting. And that’s why this one in particular is so exciting for people who have been working with sea turtles.

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How many hatchlings, do you know?

So we know that there were 45. And typically there are somewhere between 90 and 100 eggs in each nest. And so some of the eggs didn’t hatch and some of the hatchlings died on their way up to the surface of the beach. And so I don’t know what the final tally is, but it was 45 turtles that made it to the water and that have a chance to grow and survive and return to Magnolia Beach someday, hopefully when they become adults.

How does that compare with survival rates normally – half of the number of eggs, right?

When you think about a nest that’s unprotected and all of the potential predators that can dig up that nest – we’ve got raccoons, we’ve got coyotes. So the chances are that if there is a nest that is left unprotected, it will be predated. And so this one wasn’t. And that’s really exciting. So it beat the odds in the sand as those eggs were incubating.

And then, the sand on Magnolia Beach is not like a typical Gulf-side beach. It’s not soft, it’s not fine grained. And what you have on Magnolia Beach really are chunky kinds of shell in the substrate. And where this turtle put her nest was in the grass really close up to the road. So it was an unusual location and it was really hard for those hatchlings to get to the surface. They had to work a little bit harder than hatchlings would if they had been on a Gulf side beach.

Did they get any human help, by the way? 

So, the first ones that were out of the nest – there were about 25 of them – they got out on their own. And there were two fabulous beach workers from Magnolia Beach who were cleaning the area, saw the turtles heading in the wrong direction and they reoriented the turtles back to the water. Those guys are heroes. They saved the first wave of hatchlings that did break through. And then, someone from my team, RJ Shelly, who works for us and works for the Agrilife Extension Service, gave me a phone call. He said, ‘Hey, I’m on my way to the beach. I hear there’s some sea turtles there.’

I asked him to go take a look at the hole where the nest was and to see if there were any stragglers left behind. And he said, ‘Yeah, there’s a couple of them in there.’ And I asked them to stay with that nest and to start digging out around the area to see if there are any more sea turtles that may have been caught underneath. So he was able to exhume 20 more alive hatchlings from that that nest. Well, to rescue them and let them crawl down the beach and swim off into Matagorda Bay.

How endangered is the species currently? With all of these success stories, just how severely is the population limited now?

That’s a great question, and scientists are still trying to figure that out, because in 2010 there was a turn in the growth rate of the species. So every year it was increasing 15%, 15%, 15%, and in 2010 it hit a roadblock. And so we have seen a reduction in the number of females coming back to nesting beaches in some years since 2010.

And so now it varies by year. And we think that the Kemp’s ridleys are not nesting every year like they used to and that they may be nesting every other year. And that’s what happens when there are limited resources and you don’t have enough food in order to reproduce on an annual basis. And so the good news is that this is a good year, and there are a lot of them nesting in Mexico right now, a lot of them nesting in Texas right now. But it’s still not at a level that you can say the species has recovered.

Why has there been such an emphasis placed on saving this turtle? What’s their place in the ecosystem?

Well, just like all sea turtles and other marine animals, they all play a role in our marine ecosystems. And the uniqueness of the Kemp’s ridley is wonderful in part because it really relies on the Gulf of Mexico and the beaches in Mexico and Texas as its reproductive area. So they have a very limited geographic range, and this is their home. Many other sea turtles, most other species, have very widespread distributions, worldwide distributions. But the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is the Gulf of Mexico sea turtle. And it is Texas’ state sea turtle. And so we’re really proud of all our natural resources. And the Kemp’s ridley is certainly one of the most enduring symbols of conservation, success and recovery.

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