PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. - Although Karen lost its punch before it could strike Florida's Panhandle, rough surf from the storm and the ongoing federal government shutdown hampered efforts on Sunday to monitor sea turtles along some of northwest Florida's pristine beaches.
"Combined with the government shutdown, that has sort of compounded the situation because we don't have access to some portions of the park," said DJ Zemenick, a volunteer sea turtle patroller for Gulf Islands National Seashore, a national park that features sparkling white sandy beaches and a historic U.S. military fort. "With the storm coming and the government shutdown, we weren't keeping our normal procedures to screen them," she said of sea turtle nesting.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, monitoring programs help document total distribution, seasonality and abundance of sea turtle nesting - or when sea turtles lay their eggs and hatchlings head for the water.
Volunteers such as Zemenick have stepped up to try to monitor nesting over the last few days. Federal biologists who monitor sea turtle nesting at the park remained on furlough Sunday with the main access road closed off to visitors and residents, including Bill Thomas of Pensacola Beach who couldn't ride his bicycle on the scenic route down to Fort Pickens.
Karen had been a tropical storm then a depression before dissipating early Sunday but localized coastal flooding could still occur along portions of the coast, forecasters said.
Zemenick, the volunteer, said she went out Saturday night to monitor one nest that had already hatched and there were seven more hatchlings there.
"I was so excited - it had hatched Wednesday night but for whatever reason this year we are not having a great hatch rate with green sea turtles."
Five species of sea turtles can be found in the Gulf of Mexico and three are known to nest regularly on Florida beaches: the loggerhead, leatherback, and green. The loggerhead is threatened and the green and leatherback are endangered, but all sea turtles are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act and the Florida Marine Protection Act. It is against the law to touch or disturb nesting sea turtles, hatchlings or their nests.
Nesting season in Florida runs from May through October on the Gulf Coast and from March through October on the Atlantic coast.
"If the government will cooperate and open back up, we do have one nest that would be easy access but they would have to let us in," Zemenick said of being able to monitor at least one nest on the national park that was closed because of the federal government shutdown. Volunteers hope the nest hatches before Karen's impact is felt in the area.
The monitoring program in the area has been ongoing for more than two decades, she said, "so we're at the point now that we are finally seeing those hatchlings that they first helped coming back to nest. And that's very exciting."
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