Fertile turtles frustrate fishermen

Turtles are crawling ashore and laying eggs on this windy elbow of sand in record numbers.

The number of sea turtle nests is up all along the state's coast this year, but the increase at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is roughly twice the overall state increase. A rare green turtle laid the 111th nest Thursday.

That's good news for threatened loggerheads and other sea turtles. But as eggs near hatching, it means another flurry of beach closings and a new round of frustration as the popular fall fishing season gets under way.

“It's a balancing act between people and turtles,” said Michelle Baker Bogardus, sea turtle biologist with the U.S. Park Service. “We have an obligation as a park to allow people on the beach. With 111 nests, we're facing a tough fall season.”

The seashore covers 67 miles of sandy beaches on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, providing some of the best fishing on the coast.

Bird and turtle nests protected

A legal settlement – agreed to by the park service, environmental groups and local interests – requires that stretches of the seashore be off-limits to recreation during bird and turtle nesting seasons to protect threatened and declining species.

This time of year, the focus shifts from birds, which have mostly flown, to turtles, which will hatch through October. As of this week, about 80 of the 111 nests had yet to hatch.

The agreement banned nighttime beach driving in off-road vehicles from May 1 until mid-September. To accommodate fall fishing, fishermen will be allowed to drive on the beach at night by permit from Sept. 16 through Nov. 15.

But turtles typically crawl ashore at night to lay eggs, and hatchlings emerge at night. To guard against disturbance, closed areas around turtle nests that are near hatching will be expanded from dune to ocean starting in mid-September, temporarily cutting off some sections of beach.

Popular fishing spots cut off

Larry Hardham, a local angler who has spent hundreds of hours as a volunteer patrolling for turtle nests at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, said he loves turtles but is frustrated by the additional fall closures.

“There are a lot of people who feel this is not about science,” Hardham said. “This is about getting ORVs off the beaches.”

Hardham said many of the most popular fishing spots are a mile or two down the beach. Reaching them with fishing gear, ice and chairs is impractical without driving.

Park Service workers enclose nests that are near the hatch date with horseshoe-shaped plastic fencing open on the ocean. Hardham said the fencing should be sufficient without expanding the closed areas.

“I just don't see the need for the full beach closures in areas where there is space to walk or drive behind them,” Hardham said.

He said the lights of oceanfront houses are more distracting to hatchlings than the headlights of the occasional off-road vehicle. Yet there is no effort to curb house lights.

“The occasional ORV passing behind a nest is not going to have the disorienting effect that lights burning in a house all night will have,” Hardham said.

Turtle nesting goes up and down year to year. Statewide, 821 loggerhead nests have been laid in 2008, about 14 percent above the average of 715 nests, said Matthew Godfrey, sea turtle biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

Environmentalists say the increases at Cape Hatteras are exactly what park service biologists predicted would occur if nighttime driving was banned, meaning fewer disturbances.

Derb Carter, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center's Carolinas office, which filed the lawsuit resulting in the settlement, said it was encouraging to see the record number of nests. He said environmentalists were trying to assess how much was attributable to the closures. “It's encouraging and appears the measures in the consent decree are contributing to more successful nesting and breeding on the seashore,” Carter said.

Bogardus, the sea turtle biologist, said no turtle biologists think it's a good idea to allow nighttime beach driving near turtle nests. But Bogardus said it's premature to say that the closures have contributed to a rebound in nesting.

“I think it's been a wonderful year for turtles,” Bogardus said. “I think it's premature to say what caused what.”

John Couch, president of the Outer Banks Preservation Association, which advocates for open beach access for vehicles and pedestrians, worried that the turtle closures could stretch into November. Couch said that, when beaches are closed, sportsmen go elsewhere to fish.

“It's a rotating economic catastrophe,” Couch said.

Carolyn McCormick, managing director of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, said the beach closures had hurt businesses such as tackle shops. McCormick said home rentals, which are booked in advance, were up about 5 percent on Hatteras through the first half of the year, but hotel room and campground bookings were down significantly. They're also down elsewhere on the Outer Banks.

“A lot of that has to be attributed to the state of the nation's economy,” McCormick said. “The closures are having some effect.”

Steven Hissey, tackle manager at Teach's Lair Marina and a judge at the Hatteras Village Civic Association fishing tournament, said the tournament, which is scheduled in early September, might have to shorten the beaches where fishing teams compete if turtle nests are still there.

“It's an inconvenience to the anglers,” he said. “It's just something we have to work around.”