Grant: 17-046R
Project Title: Characterization Of Marine Turtles in the Waters Surrounding Biscayne National Park
Project Manager: Cody R. Mott
Organization: Inwater Research Group (Non-Profit Organization)
Grant Amount: $8,968.00
Completion Date: 2020-05-29

Summary: Biscayne National Park (BNP) is a U.S. National Park that includes Biscayne Bay and its offshore barrier reefs. Ninety-five percent of the park is aquatic and is home to 16 endangered or threatened species including green, loggerhead, hawksbill, and Kempís ridley sea turtles. Our project aims to fill in knowledge gaps and answer basic biological questions about sea turtles found in the waters surrounding the BNP. An understanding of sea turtle assemblages within these waters is essential for proper management and conservation actions. Our goal is to begin a long term study that will provide important data on trends in habitat usage, relative abundance, movement, and demographics of sea turtles in the waters and on nearby reefs. This will be accomplished through vessel based visual surveys, analysis of sighting data, gender and genetic analysis, and collection of morphometric data from captured turtles. The project is a collaboration between Inwater Research Group and the Florida Hawksbill Project. During the course of this project we will target four species of sea turtles: green turtles, loggerheads, hawksbills, and Kemp's ridleys. Visual transects will be conducted to identify sea turtle densities and habitat preferences. Captured sea turtles will be measured, weighed, tagged, and photographed before release. Blood and/or biopsy samples will be collected for analysis of genetic origin, sex determination, and stable isotope analysis. This study will provide the first detailed study of threatened and endangered sea turtles within BNP waters. These types of studies provide necessary data to park managers and staff charged with the protection of these endangered species when assessing possible threats in the park.

Results: While there were significant changes over the course of this research project, the overall goal of the project, to document sea turtle demographics in an understudied region of Florida was successful. The appropriate permits to work within Biscayne National Park were secured prior to being awarded the grant. Unfortunately, the park did not renew our annual permit because NMFS and USGS sea turtle groups were conducting similar studies in the park. We attempted to explain the benefits of having multiple researchers working within the vast park boundaries, but were unsuccessful. However, we felt we could still accomplish our research goals working in the waters south of the Biscayne National Park. Our study area was modified to include the nearshore reefs and seagrass habitat in the northern Florida Keys between Key Largo and Islamorada. These habitats are along the same tract of reef and associated sea grass that continue north into the waters of Biscayne National Park. We recommend additional in-water studies focus on how turtles utilize the sea grass beds and reefs near Carysfort and Alligator reefs. These areas potentially support large aggregations of green turtles ranging from juvenile through adult size classes. Additional investigation is also warranted on the relationship between heavily utilized snorkeling areas and the behavior of resident hawksbill and green turtles at these locations.