It was a day full of surprises.
When fishermen Carter Andrews and Chase Cornell began drifting live crab over a reef, they didn’t expect to pull a mangrove fish, let alone a 10-pound giant.
Back at the pier, when they cleaned up that fish, they were shocked by what they found in its stomach: seven baby sea turtles.
Their story reveals just how brutal – and short – lifespans of Florida’s baby sea turtles, which are in peak hatching status right now. At night, youngsters can be lured to their death by apartment lights or devoured by foxes, raccoons and feral cats. In the daytime, fire ants sting them to death and seagulls snatch them from the sand.
And if they’re lucky enough to slip into the waves, a deadly row of marine predators, like the Snook, tarpon and mahi-mahi, are waiting for you. Now you can add cork to the list. The Florida Wildlife Commission estimates that only one in every 1,000 sea turtles born on Florida’s beaches lives to adulthood.
Andrews, who hosts the fishing show The Obsession of Carter Andrews, and Cornell, set off from Sebastian Bay and headed about six miles offshore, to an artificial reef in 65 feet of water. Although they were targeting one of Andrews’ favorite game fish, the remark, when Cornell pulled out his 10-pound mangrove, they were both delighted the size of a fish. “The triple pistil is big in most places,” Andrews said. This fish was special.
With the look of her swollen belly, she was feeding on abandonment.
Andrews rarely keeps game fish, but occasionally he will take one home for dinner. “This is the cut,” he said. When he reached the dock, some of his fellow fishermen were cleaning up the smaller snapper.
Someone saw him walking around with the 10-pound monster and said, “Boy, don’t get in here, don’t get in here! You’re going to make me look bad.”
“I threw that snapper, and when we cut it open and those turtles came out, these guys were like, ‘I don’t know where I was, but that’s wrong. I can’t believe he was eating turtles! “
Andrews and Cornell couldn’t, either.
Finally, there were seven baby turtles in the stomachs of the mangrove snapper. Whitney Crowder, sea turtle rehabilitation coordinator at Gumbo Limbo Coastal Stewards in Boca Raton, took a look at Andrew’s photos and identified the relatively fresh turtles as loggerhead and five green turtles.
Andrews, who has fished in 30 countries and caught hundreds of species of fish, was surprised in part because snappers don’t feed near the surface, where young sea turtles shelter in sargassum patches. As the young mangrove snapper dives beneath the coastal mangrove forests and as it grows, it moves offshore and holed up near the bottom.
He’s seen pictures of Mahi Mahi with bellies full of baby turtles, which makes sense – they’re navigating close to the surface. But for a snapper entering its prey on the surface of 65 feet of water, it was a shocking thing to Andrews.
“There is no doubt that this snapper was jumping to the surface and eating those turtles,” Andrews said. “It is dangerous for baby turtles to swim (in deep water)…it makes you realize how these fish can learn behaviour. Every day I am amazed at the different things I see (in the ocean).”
Five species of sea turtles are found in Florida. The green, leatherback, hawksbill, and Kemp’s ridley are listed as endangered, and the loggerhead is also listed as threatened.
Sea turtles usually nest from May to October in Florida. Females come ashore in the area where they were born, but not necessarily on the same beach, said Emily Turla, a lab coordinator at Florida Atlantic University who studies turtle nesting.
They lay multiple clutches of 80 to 120 eggs in each, bury them, and return to the sea.
After a two-month incubation period, the eggs hatch together, generally at night or early in the morning, and the babies head toward the lighter part of the sky, which would be the ocean’s horizon on a natural shore. The light emanating from Florida apartments and hotels often lures them toward civilization, where they can die of dehydration or fall prey to various predators.
Organizations such as The Audubon Society and Fort Lauderdale’s STOP (Sea Turtle Watch Protection) and STAR (Sea Turtle Aid and Rescue) work to care for stray baby birds out to sea.
If turtles have access to the water, they are easy prey for not only mangrove snappers, but also snooks, beach-roaming tarpons, cobias, tri-tails, and offshore mahi-mahi. Even as it grows, it can fall prey to many types of sharks.
Fish have been eating the young of sea turtles 40 million years ago, which may explain why females lay so many eggs. It also means that sea turtles have been very successful – until now. Human impact adds an overwhelming burden. Boat strikes cause heavy losses as well as litter. Adult turtles mistake balloons for jellyfish, and baby turtles swallow hundreds of microplastics, which have become ubiquitous in open ocean ecosystems, according to Crowder.
“In the Gulf Stream habitat, these turtles are just looking for food and finding everything they can, and they are very small creatures that live in the grass line. There is plastic in great numbers (there),” she said. “The plastic starts to smell like food because it’s in the ocean. Algae growth begins on it. And we know they think it’s food. We found literally every baby turtle that comes to our facility with guts full of plastic.”
If a turtle dies in a rehabilitation center, funding from the nonprofit Coastal Stewards helps it conduct autopsies and document the types of plastic the turtles eat. Recently, one week-old green sea turtle they examined had 344 pieces of plastic in its intestines.
In addition, this summer was particularly hot and dry, and some researchers suspect that this resulted in lower hatching rates.
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“This season, compared to last season, the eggs don’t even hatch. Embryos are dying during development because they are too hot to handle,” said Emily Turla, an assistant lab coordinator at Florida Atlantic University who studies turtle nesting.
She said that while there were some record nesting numbers this year, that’s not the whole picture. “There are certainly a lot of nests out there,” she said, “but they don’t develop.”
Turla and her supervisor, Dr. Janet Winken, are in the midst of studying how – as with alligators – nest temperatures determine the sex of the young.
Historically, the warm Florida sands produced more females than male turtles, but in recent years, including this summer, Wyneken and her team have seen hatching groups that are 100% female, a new trend in their 20-year study that could have Negative impact on future residents.
Research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association shows that the average annual temperature in Broward County since 1980 has gradually increased from 74.2° to 76.7°, and EPA data shows the rate of temperature change since 1901 in coastal South Florida. It is 2.82 degrees. for each century. If these trends continue, Florida turtle nests may be endangered.
As for the mangrove snapper that caught up on Andrews’ boat, Andrews said, “It was a huge fillet, man.” “It’s been roasted with black spices, and my girls’ favorite way to do this is to put in some avocado, salsa, black beans and rice. It was delicious.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media, and the Tampa Bay Times.