St. Lucie Site
Our largest project for sea turtle conservation is conducted at the FPL St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant. When you think of sea turtle conservation, a nuclear power plant may not come to mind. However, FPL’s St. Lucie Site is a major hub for sea turtle research. Marine species, including turtles, are entrained when water is drawn in from the Atlantic Ocean to cool the plant’s reactors. Since 1976, FPL has employed biologists to conduct sea turtle research at the St. Lucie Site, and Inwater Research Group has overseen the capture, data collection, and safe return of these sea turtles back into the wild since 2009.
Access to these turtles has provided a tremendous amount of opportunity for conservation research. Since the program’s inception, over 20,000 sea turtles have contributed to this important portrait of sea turtle life history. Each turtle is given a thorough health assessment, weighed, measured, tagged, and photographed before being released back into the ocean. IRG biologists, along with many other agencies, have used the data gathered from these turtles to help answer many questions about Florida’s sea turtles including abundance data, population trends, human and natural threats, growth rates, migratory patterns, and much more. IRG has also had the opportunity to collaborate with many colleges and universities to collect other data, such as blood, biopsy, and lavage samples to look at questions about the genetic origins of individual turtles, baseline blood chemistry values, stable isotope analysis, etc.
One of the most interesting aspects of this program is that it has allowed our biologists access to all five species of sea turtles known to inhabit Florida waters: loggerhead, green, leatherback, hawksbill, and Kemp’s ridley, and to a sixth species, the olive ridley. Most sea turtle research is conducted on nesting beaches where researchers only have access to adult female and hatchling sea turtles. We have been able to collect data from a variety of different size classes: juvenile, sub-adult, and adults, as well as both male and female turtles.
The program also provides a vital opportunity for sick or injured sea turtles to be transferred to rehabilitation centers until they are healthy enough to be returned to the wild. Since 2009, 245 turtles have been taken to rehabilitation centers for fishing line entanglements, heavy fibropapilloma tumors, boat strikes, shark bites, cold stunning, and a variety of other ailments. Many of these turtles would have most likely washed up dead or too sick to be rehabilitated if they weren’t captured at this in-water site.
In addition to the sea turtle research conducted at this site, IRG is also involved in the capture, tag, and release of a variety of elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, and rays) and teleost (bony) fish. We have acquired specimens for many aquaria, such as the collection of three roughtail stingrays captured for the Georgia Aquarium and two goliath grouper captured for the Florida Aquarium. We have also collaborated with a variety of researchers including biologists at Florida State University, FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic, Mote Marine Lab, and the Florida Oceanographic Society.