Grant: 19-008R
Project Title: Using satellite tags to measure true clutch frequency of nesting leatherback turtles and monitor post-season movement
Project Manager: Kelly Martin
Organization: Florida Leatherbacks Inc (Non-Profit Organization)
Grant Amount: $18,854.00
Completion Date: 2021-05-20

Summary: In 2014, Florida Leatherbacks Inc. (FLI) research expanded to include Martin County, which hosts the densest leatherback nesting beaches in the state. Through this work, more than 800 individuals have been identified in Florida. These data have been used to identify important population parameters including remigration interval, genetic structure, size, health, and basic population size. However, site fidelity remains quite poor and despite coverage of a large portion of primary nesting beaches, clutch frequency can be difficult to estimate. This results in an overestimation of population size. In 2018, FLI partnered with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada to deploy long-term transmitters on nesting females in Florida. A single female was tagged in early-May and researchers were able to document nesting events that would not have been possible without a transmitter. In addition, they have been able to document post-season migration and behavior. This project will involve the deployment of three satellite transmitters at the beginning of nesting season to better estimate true clutch frequency and ultimately population size. These tags will also document internesting behavior and habitat utilization and long-term, post-nesting migrations. These data can be used to show areas of leatherback foraging and migration that overlap with areas of high fisheries activity, offshore energy exploration, and vessel traffic.

Results: Funds provided from the Sea Turtle Grants Program were used to purchase three satellite transmitters (Wildlife Computers SPLASH10-BF-294E) and attachment gear such as putty, crimps and disinfectants. A four-wheel drive ATV was purchased on 2/28/2020 that afforded the team easier access to the beach and turtles during tag recoveries. Leatherback research surveys were started on March 8th, 2020 along 13 km of beach extending from the Palm Beach Martin County line to the St. Lucie Inlet. Three turtles were quickly encountered and tagged according to protocols used by other researchers and permitted by State of Florida Marine Turtle Permit #20-208. Turtles were then recaptured at regular intervals to offload gathered data. Tracked turtles were found to nest at Palm Beach, Juno Beach, Jupiter, Jupiter Island and Hutchinson Island. funds from the Sea Turtle Grants Program allowed us to greatly expand upon our knowledge of early season nesting turtles. These transmitters provided extremely valuable data about clutch frequency and site fidelity that we would not have been able to gather without tracking technology. This information is crucial for not only understanding population size and status but important habitat usage and behavior. It is our goal to track as many as ten turtles each year to gain a better understanding of their movements when they are using the nesting beach. Maps for the three leatherbacks (Malone, Nevada, & Ainsley) can be found at www.trackturtles.com