From Tampa Bay Times, by Craig Pittman.

ST. PETERSBURG —- Tropical Storm Debby tore up Florida’s gulf beaches right in the middle of the nesting season for loggerhead sea turtles.

Yet sea turtle nesting came close to a record high this year, according to biologists with the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. They’re hopeful this is a sign of continued improvement for the loggerhead, listed as a threatened species — although they acknowledge that counting nests is not the same as counting turtle hatchlings.

Along the 250 miles of beaches checked this year, volunteers counted 58,172 loggerhead nests, one of the highest counts since monitoring began in 1989.

The all-time record of 59,918 nests was set in 1998, but the count hit a low of 28,074 in 2007.

“After a steep decline in Florida loggerhead nesting between 1998 and 2007, nesting has risen over the past five years,” said Blair Witherington, a scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “We’re pleased to see this increase, but we recognize that loggerheads, and other sea turtle species, still face many challenges.”

However, Witherington noted, the number of nests does not necessarily correlate with the number of turtle eggs that hatched. He said biologists are still working on their estimates of how many hatchlings climbed out of the sand and trundled toward the ocean.

Florida is crucial to the survival of loggerheads. Ninety percent of all loggerhead nesting in the United States occurs in Florida.

From May until September, thousands of female sea turtles — loggerheads and other species — crawl up on Florida beaches, dig a hole and drop in a clutch of eggs, then cover it back up and swim away. The turtles that lay the eggs are returning to the beaches where they themselves hatched some 30 years before.

Loggerhead nesting had been surging this year when Tropical Storm Debby hit in June, destroying scores of nests.

“Obviously there’s a lot of devastation,” David Yates of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which coordinates sea turtle nesting surveys on most of Pinellas’ beaches, said at the time. “We were having the best year in 15 years, and now we’ve had a substantial washing away.”

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