April 11, 2018

SAVE-A-TURTLE
Save-A-Turtle volunteers and Islamorada Public Works staffers erect a plastic silt fence anchored by heavy sandbags at Sea Oats Beach in an effort to keep sea turtles from crawling onto U.S. 1 during nesting season.

SAVE-A-TURTLE Save-A-Turtle volunteers and Islamorada Public Works staffers erect a plastic silt fence anchored by heavy sandbags at Sea Oats Beach in an effort to keep sea turtles from crawling onto U.S. 1 during nesting season.

ISLAMORADA — Sea turtles soon will return to Sea Oats Beach on a mission of life, so volunteers seek to keep the turtles’ long journey from ending in death.

A project organized by nonprofit Save-A-Turtle brought more than two dozen volunteers to the Lower Matecumbe Key shoreline near mile marker 75 on March 31 to erect and anchor a temporary fence intended to keep the nesting turtles from becoming roadkill on U.S. 1.

“Now there is no sand on a large portion of the beach, just rubble,” project organizer Sandi Williams said.

“If we had not put the fence in, returning turtles would crawl over the rubble while looking for sand, right onto the road where they could be killed,” Williams said. “Maybe it would cause an auto accident that hurts or kills people, as well.”

Around 2,000 sandbags, each weighing 40 to 50 pounds, were filled and carried across the highway to anchor the silt fence along the rocky shore. “We only stopped because we ran out of sandbags,” Williams said.

“The fence isn’t there to prevent people from using the beach,” she said. “It’s there to prevent turtles from wandering onto the road.”

Sea Oats Beach has long been one of the most active turtle-nesting sites along the populated Florida Keys chain. Last year, Williams and other monitors logged 36 nests, a banner season along the stretch that runs for less than a mile.

“Sea turtles return to where they were born but they don’t reach nesting age for about 25 years,” Williams said. “This beach was beautiful 25 years ago. Now they’re coming home but when they get here, most of the beach is gone.”

A section at the west end of Sea Oats Beach retains enough sand to accommodate turtle nests, even after extensive erosion that began before Hurricane Irma. 

“We were concerned that without the fence, the turtles wouldn’t know the sand is there,” Williams said.

In addition to the volunteers, a four-man crew dispatched by the village’s Public Works department for the project was “just amazing,” Williams said. “They worked tirelessly and cheerfully, and even invented a better way to fill the sandbags.”

Capt. Corey Bryan and deputies of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office maintained traffic control to keep the volunteers, including state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, safe while they ferried sandbags across the highway.

An additional shoreline cleanup was planned by the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce for earlier this week.

Sea turtles, mostly loggerheads, likely will begin making their nesting crawls on sandy Keys shorelines in late April and continuing into late summer. Hatches typically occur about two months after nesting. 

Plans to restore Sea Oats Beach to a more natural condition conducive to sea-turtle nesting have been proposed, but funding and work could be years away.  

For more information on sea turtles in the Florida Keys, visit save-a-turtle.org. 

kwadlow@keysnews.com