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    Endangered loggerhead's nest plundered for eggs

    Theft of the eggs would carry a federal penalty of a $25,000 fine and a year in jail. More than 100 eggs are missing.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 10, 2002

    Biologists with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium welcomed 108 new loggerhead turtles into the world late last week, but said Tuesday that more than 100 eggs were stolen from a second beach nest.

    During a patrol early Monday, aquarium biologist Glenn Harman discovered that someone had moved the stakes protecting a nest on the south end of Indian Rocks Beach. A flag identifying the nest also had been moved, he said.

    When Harman found the real nest, it was empty and filled with sand. Aquarium biologists monitored the nest and knew 124 turtle eggs had been stolen.

    All signs indicate that a human, not an animal, dug up the nest, Harman said. All the eggs were removed, with no egg shells or other remains left behind, as might be the case if a raccoon or other animal had dug it up.

    "They were methodically taken out," he said Tuesday.

    Moreover, the stakes and flag had not been tossed aside, but had been set up elsewhere to make it appear that the nest was in a different spot, he said.

    Loggerhead turtles are listed as endangered by the U.S. government. Florida beaches account for more than 90 percent of America's loggerheads and more than one-third of the world's total population.

    Whoever took the eggs might have sold them or eaten them, Harman said. There is not much of a domestic market for the eggs, he said, but they are eaten as an aphrodisiac in Mexico.

    In the 15 years that Harman, 33, has been checking sea turtle nests on Pinellas beaches, "this is the first time I've ever had it happen," he said. Similar thefts and even the slaughter of female turtles that came ashore to lay eggs have been recorded in areas south of Tampa Bay, he said.

    The loggerhead is named for its large head, and has powerful jaws that crush mollusks and crabs. Adults weigh 200 to 350 pounds and are about 3 feet long. New hatchlings are 2 inches long.

    Harman said the theft was reported to the city of Indian Rocks Beach, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and state and federal fish and wildlife officials. Theft of sea turtle eggs is a violation of the federal Endangered Species Act and state law. A conviction on the federal charge could carry a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $25,000 fine. The state law carries a maximum sentence of up to a year in jail and a fine of $100 per egg.

    Aquarium officials urged anyone with information regarding the eggs' disappearance to call the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

    Meanwhile, 108 baby turtles broke through their shells Friday night, becoming the first sea turtle hatchlings of the 2002 nesting season, which runs from May to October. That nest was on Sand Key in Clearwater.

    Aquarium biologists protect the hatchlings by placing a wire enclosure over the nest. That enables them to collect the baby turtles, weigh and measure them and provide them safe passage to the water.

    A female loggerhead lays from 70 to 150 pingpong ball-sized eggs each year. The eggs incubate from 40 to 70 days in the beach sand. The public can help the hatchlings by turning out lights facing the beach and observing nests from a distance, according to the aquarium.

    -- Staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.

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