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SC enjoys prosperous 2020 turtle nesting season as conservation comes of age

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Kiawah Island sea turtles

Sibling turtles on Kiawah Island make their way across the beach during the nesting season. Provided/Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol

South Carolina wrapped up the 2020 sea turtle nesting season with about two-thirds more nests than the 10-year average.

The nesting season ends in October and officials with the state Department of Natural Resources are pleased with the progress made this year. 

Charlotte Hope, a biologist with the department, said the average nests for the last 10 years was 3,324 all along the state's coast.

DNR counted 5,560 nests this year. 

However, this year's total still doesn't come close to two of the state's biggest nesting years. In 2016, the state broke its record with 6,446 nests. 

"And then last year blew that one out of the water, at 8,774," Hope said. 

Loggerhead, Kemp's ridley, green and leatherback sea turtles can be found along South Carolina's shores.

Hope said she believes the state's high numbers are bound to improve. With each additional nesting year, the state's average is increasing, she said. 

"I think nest protection 30-plus years ago has to do with it," Hope said. "And the fact that we've been able to reduce mortality, particularly of the adults, which is the most important part of your population."

About 16 percent of the nests this season were washed away. Most were taken by Hurricane Isaias in August, and others by king tides.  

The COVID-19 pandemic did cause groups such as the Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol to alter the ways in which it does inventory on the beaches. 

Lynne Sager, head of the Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol, said that before the pandemic, a team of five volunteers would survey the beach daily. But they had to decrease to two per team because of social distancing guidelines. 

The group also couldn't announce its inventories to the public because of the large crowds they attract. 

"They want to see you counting the shells because there's always a chance a live hatchling, a little straggler, got left behind in the nest," Sager said. "And that's what they're hoping to see."

Kiawah Island's turtle nesting season ended a little early this year. The town's last nest was inventoried Oct. 18. 

Sager agrees that last year was big for nesting in South Carolina and the entire East Coast. The island had more than 500 nests.

She said that two years ago, in 2018, Kiawah Island had 219 nests. And this year, there were 341. 

"The numbers are growing," Sager said. "It's all looking great."

DNR said the 2020 numbers reflect a trend of increasing sea turtle nest numbers on the Southeastern coast, as four decades of conservation work begins to come of age.

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