A full-scale effort is being launched to keep McKissack Beach pristine

This summer, two loggerhead sea turtle nests were laid at McKissack Beach in Carrabelle. The loggerhead is one of the federally and state listed threatened sea turtle species monitored annually by permitted surveyors across Florida.

You might be wondering what the big deal is about just two turtle nests along a Florida beach. Sea turtles don’t often land in Carrabelle to lay their nests. In fact, from 1996 to 2018, there have been only five observed loggerhead nests and three crawls (nesting attempt with no eggs deposited) in the Carrabelle Beach area. This is because Carrabelle is shielded by barrier islands, and not directly on the Gulf, where most sea turtles nest.

Local residents alerted staff at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve when they came across the nests during their daily beach walks in July and August. Stewardship staff verified the nests and installed Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission turtle signs and self-releasing wire screens to encourage awareness and to protect the clutches.

McKissack Beach, a 300-acre property owned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and leased by the city of Carrabelle, is a beautiful example of intertidal marshes, beaches and dunes, popular among locals and visitors alike for beach walking, swimming, and wildlife observation. Historically, vehicular traffic on the beach has been of concern to local residents and negatively impacting the pristine habitat. By county ordinance, dogs must be kept on leash, camping is prohibited, and motor vehicles are not allowed.

Recently, community residents encouraged Carrabelle to install posts and signage at the Gulf Beach Drive after tire tracks were observed near one of the nests on more than one occasion. FWC law enforcement and the sheriff’s office routinely patrol beach access points and enforce the county ordinances.

Residents worked with the city, FWC, Florida Audubon and US Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a kiosk which provides education about beach wildlife and conservation issues while reminding beachgoers of ordinances in place to safeguard the area.

Adult female turtles face challenges when they come up to nest on public beaches, such as entanglement in beach furniture, disturbance by animals, and disorientation from artificial lighting. Once laid, eggs endure 50 to70 days of incubation and can be damaged by illegal vehicular traffic on the beach, tides, ghost crab predation, and washouts from tropical systems. Both native and nuisance wildlife, and even dogs, can snatch hatchling turtles as they emerge from the sand on their way back to the water. According to FWC, only one in 1,000 hatchlings makes it to adulthood. Every sea turtle nest matters when the odds are stacked against them.

Nest evaluation by permit holders takes place generally 70 days from when they were laid. Determining hatch success helps land managers to better manage the site in favor of successful turtle nesting. Local data contributes to a statewide FWC database that tracks long term populations of sea turtle species.

Seventeen residents joined two staff from ANERR on one mid-October morning to perform nest evaluations. Residents gathered around as staff excavated the nests and counted hatched and unhatched eggs. Unfortunately, all 71 eggs were unhatched from the July nest. Three hatchlings emerged, however, from the August nest, which had about 95 eggs in total.

Inundation from tides and a high water table may have been factors in the eggs not fully developing. Other variables that impact development include temperature, humidity, depth, and physical disturbance. Luckily, sea turtles had a successful year nesting on other area beaches. For example, St. George Island recorded 451 nests (428 loggerhead and 28 green turtles) and Little St. George Island 201 nests (One leatherback, 198 loggerhead, and 2 green).

Wilson’s plovers, a species of special concern, also utilize the quiet sandy beaches of McKissack to nest in recent years. They make a small scrape in the sand to lay their eggs in the open beach, under vegetation, or among rocks or shells. American oystercatcher, black skimmers, little blue heron, snowy plover, piping plover, red knot, marbled godwit and least tern are other protected bird species regularly observed on site. Sea oats and two state listed plants, Godfrey’s blazing star and large-leaved jointweed, are also in the area and protected.

The McKissack property will soon have a land management plan with the help of the Apalachee Regional Planning Council, DEP’s Division of State Lands, and the city. Input from stakeholders in the planning committee will include FWC, DEP, Audubon, residents and conservation advocates. The management plan will advise how to enhance public access and aesthetics at the site while conserving native habitats and wildlife species. Strategies will focus on restoration of natural communities, improvement of water quality due to nonpoint pollution sources, support of native and protected species utilizing the property, and stabilization of the beach and dune structure and vegetation.

Low-impact recreation opportunities, interpretive signage, parking area and drainage enhancements, dune barriers, garbage containment, and ADA accessibility will also be discussed and addressed in the management plan and public meetings. Workshops and public meetings are planned to begin in January.

Thanks to the local residents and the city of Carrabelle for being true stewards in the community and contributing to the protection of the shorebirds, sea turtles, and the unique coastal habitats at McKissack Beach.

For more information on sea turtles and shorebirds in the area or to find out how you can volunteer, contact ANERR at 670-7700 or visit the Nature Center at 108 Island Drive in Eastpoint.

Caitlin Snyder is stewardship coordinator for ANERR and the Lake Jackson Aquatic Preserve.