Bringing Back the Turtles in Biscayne Bay Florida

Posted Mon, 06/15/2020 - 09:32

Join the NOAA Marine Debris Program as we celebrate National Ocean Month. This week’s theme is Ocean Life and it is also Turtle Week. Learn how our partners worked in Biscayne Bay, Florida to remove marine debris from a remote island and restored sea turtle habitat.

Sea turtles are well adapted to life in the ocean and live in tropical and subtropical ocean waters around the world. Of the seven species of sea turtles, six are found in U.S. waters, including the green, hawksbill, Kemp's ridley, leatherback, loggerhead, and olive ridley turtles. Although sea turtles live most of their lives in the ocean, adult females have to return to beaches to lay their eggs. They often migrate long distances, and during this journey, they can face threats from a variety of hazards. Major threats to sea turtles in the United States include damage to their habitats, accidental capture during fishing, and getting tangled in or ingesting marine debris. The NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) collaborates with partners to protect sea turtles by removing marine debris from shorelines, and preventing it from entering the ocean in the first place. 

To celebrate “Turtle Week”, let’s throw it back to 2013 when the Coastal Cleanup Corporation (CCC) started a new marine debris project in Florida. Sea turtle hatchlings have it tough. Turtle eggs are buried in the sand and are subject to attack from crabs, snakes, birds, and rodents. Once they hatch, the young turtles have to fight their way out of their sandy nest and then make a dash for the ocean. The distance to the water varies as they navigate these threats, and the marine debris that washes up on their beach only adds to the difficulty. In south Florida’s Biscayne Bay, some turtle nesting locations were littered with marine debris and something needed to be done.

In 2013, CCC restored critical sea turtle nesting habitat on Elliott Key, located inside Biscayne Bay, by removing marine debris and making long-term improvements to the habitat used by endangered loggerhead and green sea turtles. This project, funded through a NOAA Marine Debris Program Removal grant, delivered incredible results through fifteen debris cleanups from the remote shorelines of the Key. Volunteers focused on removing plastics, glass, foam, rubber, and discarded fishing gear that could interfere with female sea turtles’ journey from the ocean to their nesting sites. Because Elliott Key is an island, volunteers had to travel to and from the island by boat and all the collected debris was shipped off the island boat and properly discarded on land. Over the course of one year, the volunteers and project leaders removed over three tons of marine debris on Elliott Key. This impressive total included 113 derelict traps and 178 foam buoys, which are a large issue in southern Florida. The project leaders extended their program by participating in public events to share project goals, achievements, and sea turtle science with local citizens.

In 2015, the CCC built on their success, and with another NOAA Marine Debris Program Removal grant, continued their efforts to remove marine debris from sea turtle nesting beaches and surrounding seagrass beds. Working with Biscayne National Park, they engaged over 200 volunteers to remove approximately five tons of marine debris from the nesting beaches, seagrass meadows, and mangrove creeks of Elliott Key, Old Rhodes Key, and Sands Key during 25 cleanup days. Marine debris items included a significant amount of abandoned, lost, or derelict commercial fishing gear (ghost nets, trapline, 485 lobster/crab/octopus trap parts, 515 buoys), as well as plastic, glass, rubber, foam, and other human-made items. Biscayne National Park resource managers and volunteers from the Sea Turtle Monitoring Program volunteered approximately 1,800 hours to monitor sea turtle nesting activity, and found that as a result of their efforts, 1,658 loggerhead sea turtles hatched on these beaches, compared to around 100 the year before!

Eight people stand behind piles of garbage all stuffed in plastic garbage bags. A boat is floating on the water in the background.
Volunteers with the Coastal Cleanup Corporation show marine debris collected from a barrier island within Biscayne National Park (Credit: Coastal Cleanup Corporation).

As we reflect on the success of CCC’s past projects, it’s important to understand that marine debris is created by everyone, and protecting sea turtles doesn’t stop once the project is over. There are many things we can do to help keep our ocean and Great Lakes free of marine debris, and support healthy sea turtles nesting habitats. To learn more, about what you can do to save these endangered sea turtles, visit NOAA Fisheries.