Wave wash-over poses a significant threat to sea turtle nests, with sustained exposure to waves potentially resulting in embryonic mortality and altered hatchling locomotor function, size, and sex ratios. Identifying where and under what conditions wave exposure becomes a problem, and deciding what action(s) to take (if any), is a common issue for sea turtle managers. To determine the exposure of sea turtle nests to waves and identify potential impacts to hatchling productivity, we integrated a geographic information system with remote sensing and wave runup modeling across 40 nesting beaches used by the Northern Gulf of Mexico Loggerhead Recovery Unit. Our models indicate that, on average, approximately 50% of the available beach area and 34% of nesting locations per nesting beach face a significant risk of wave exposure, particularly during tropical storms. Field data from beaches in the Florida Panhandle show that 42.3% of all nest locations reported wave exposure, which resulted in a 45% and 46% decline in hatching and emergence success, respectively, relative to their undisturbed counterparts. Historical nesting frequency at each beach and modeled exposure to waves were considered to identify priority locations with high nesting density which either experience low risk of wave exposure, as these are good candidates for protection as refugia for sustained hatchling production, or which have high wave exposure where efforts to reduce impacts are most warranted. Nine beaches in the eastern Florida Panhandle were identified as priority sites for future efforts such as habitat protection or research and development of management strategies. This modeling exercise offers a flexible approach for a threat assessment integration into research and management questions relevant to sea turtle conservation, as well as for other beach species and human uses of the coastal environment.
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