Queensland’s environmental authorities have raised alarm about large numbers of flatback turtle hatchlings that are dying soon after leaving the nest in the waters along the Capricorn coast region of Queensland.
The Queensland Department of Environment said it had been finding many hatchlings dead or stranded since the start of hatching season in late January.
The department’s senior conservation officer, Dr Ian Bell, said in a statement that the unprecedented development was being monitored closely and that light pollution from nearby communities along the Yeppoon coast was the most likely culprit.
As the hatchlings rely on the lightest horizon to find the ocean, artificial light can make them disoriented and confused.
Even those that make it to the ocean are not safe as they may follow the lights back to land where they strand, die or become prey for predatory animals.
“Two of the turtles were recaptures from a monitoring program at Peak Island, indicating that the hatchlings are not all dispersing from the local area as expected,” Bell said.
“Monitoring of newly emerged hatchlings at Peak Island has shown that instead of heading directly seaward across the beach, the hatchlings were heading diagonally across the beach towards the Yeppoon coast.
“There is a distinct possibility that the post-hatchling turtles leaving Peak Island are being attracted to the inshore coastal waters of Keppel Bay by the sky glow of the Yeppoon coast.”
Another concern was the presence of ocean plastics from litter that was being discovered in stranded turtles.
Young turtles confuse the floating plastics for the surface plankton they normally feed upon, causing an effect called “float stranding” where they cannot dive in order to reach safety.
Should the trend continue, long-term population numbers were likely to thin over the next decade as fewer turtles successfully returned as adults to nest.
In an effort to address the problem, authorities were asking local residents to turn off unnecessary lights after 7.30pm as hatching season continued through February and March.
The department also encouraged anyone who comes across a sick or dead turtle to contact the state’s wildlife hotline on 1300 130 372.