The Upper Texas Coast nesting beach monitoring program, initiated by Dr. Andre Landry of Texas A&M University and Carole Allen of H.E.A.R. T., is one of several patrol units on the Texas Coast that provides vital sea turtle nesting data, first responders when sea turtles are sighted, and crucial training to volunteers.
The purpose of the Upper Texas Coast Sea Turtle Patrol is to monitor and protect nesting Kemp’s ridley sea turtles (and other sea turtle species), and to assist in the recovery of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle population. The Upper Texas Coast Sea Turtle Patrol also responds to stranded sea turtles and reports injured birds and other wildlife to appropriate organizations.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, and all sea turtles, are iconic marine species in the Gulf of Mexico. Historically the Kemp’s ridley population was in decline in the 1960’s and 1970’s due to overharvesting of eggs and fisheries by-catch. The population reached a critical low in the 1980’s when only a few hundred nesting females returned to their natal beaches in Mexico. Conservation efforts in the 1980’s focused on protecting nests, protecting nesting females, reducing fishery by-catch and offshore mortality, and the establishing a second nesting beach in south Texas at the Padre Island National Seashore. These efforts resulted in Kemp’s ridley sea turtle population rebounding to 10,000 turtles by 2009.
However, since 2010 their population has faltered and the number of nests has declined by approximately 45%. In 2014 another decline in nesting turtles occurred. Due to the limited range and nesting beaches of this species, Kemp’s ridley sea turtle populations continue to be vulnerable despite their past gains. Kemp’s ridley sea turtles remain the most endangered sea turtle in the world.
Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) and Texas A&M University at Galveston (TAMUG) have implemented a sea turtle nesting and stranding monitoring program along the Upper Texas Coast that will promote sea turtle conservation and the preservation of marine habitats as a community-wide effort. The goals of the monitoring program are to assist in the recovery of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, and all sea turtles, by:
- increasing recruitment of sea turtle hatchlings from nesting beaches
- assisting in the rescue and rehabilitation of stranded sea turtles
- collecting biological data important to understanding natural history and population dynamics of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, and to
- train sea turtle biologists of the future
We accomplish these goals through our frequent patrols of Upper Texas Coast beaches for nesting and stranded sea turtles, protecting nesting sea turtles, transportation of Kemp’s ridley sea turtle eggs to the Padre Island National Seashore incubation facility, and the participation and mentoring of graduate and undergraduate students in this program.
Beach patrols range from Rollover Pass on the Bolivar Peninsula through Galveston Island to Surfside, TX. Surveys are carried out 6 days a week, from April 1st to July 15th. Surveys are conducted using TAMUG’s fleet of UTV vehicles, as well as volunteers walking the beach.
If sea turtle tracks are found on the beach, responders will examine the tracks to determine if a nest was deposited, locate the egg chamber, excavate the eggs and transport them to the Padre Island National Seashore incubation facility. Scientific data show that excavated nests have a higher hatching rate compared to nests left on the beach. These conservation measures are important for recovering Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, which are the most endangered sea turtle in the world.
If an actual nesting sea turtle is encountered on the beach, responders will wait until the female is finished laying eggs. As the female returns to the beach responders will capture her to examine the turtle for any existing tags, collect measurements and samples, and attach identification tags in accordance with established nesting response protocols. In addition, the health of each turtle will be assessed. These data are important for overall management and conservation of sea turtle populations.
The Upper Texas Coast Sea Turtle Patrol works closely with other biologists along the Texas coast and, our work is one piece of a statewide effort to recover Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, and all sea turtles in Texas.