One of IRG’s oldest projects, Key West National Wildlife Refuge (KWNWR), contains a portion of the United States’s only continental coral reef tract as well as numerous coral patch reefs, extensive seagrass beds, and mixed hardbottom/sponge habitat. These protected areas, including the numerous keys within the refuge, provide important nesting and foraging habitat for sea turtles. While sea turtle nesting was thoroughly monitored in the refuge, relatively little was known about sea turtles inhabiting the refuge’s waters. In 2002, refuge managers tasked IRG with the first in-water surveys for sea turtles. The work has led to numerous insights into how different species of sea turtles utilize different parts of the refuge. Hawksbills, a more tropical species, were found over shallow seagrass beds, on sponge beds, and along a submerged man-made jetty. While hawksbill turtles occasionally nest in Florida, the ones found in the refuge were immature. Genetic testing showed that most of these turtles were born on beaches in Mexico and possibly in nearby Cuba. IRG also located habitat where adult green turtles reside between nesting migrations. This was the first documented adult green turtle foraging ground on the East Coast of the United States. Captures at this location allow IRG to also study rarely encountered male and subadult green turtles. As one of IRG’s longest-running projects, it has been supported by a variety of funding agencies including the Key West National Wildlife Refuge.
Since 2019, IRG has been conducting research in the surrounding waters of Big Pine Key to Boca Chica Key, focusing on collecting morphometric information and performing health assessments on green and loggerhead turtles. This project has also focused on documenting “hot spots”, or areas of high sea turtle density, as well as gaining insights into habitat use, demographic structure, and diet composition. Over the last four years, IRG has conducted over 500 miles of visual transects across the lower keys, capturing and studying more than 150 green and loggerhead turtles. Initial findings have offered insight into fibropapilomatosis (FP) rates across different regions and proportions of sizes classes and sexes between keys. This work is all part of ongoing research efforts that IRG conducts in partnership with The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, FL and the FORCE BLUE Team, an organization that connects special operations veterans with the world of marine science and conservation for the betterment of both. Findings from this project have already impacted Florida DEP development permit decisions within the adjacent aquatic preserve, in addition to informing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Recovery Draft Plan for the U.S. Population of Atlantic Green Turtles.