Authorities are searching for a man and a woman who killed two black skimmer chicks and damaged five loggerhead sea turtle nests while driving a high-powered vehicle on the beach at Anna Maria Island.
The incident began at 10:30 p.m. Saturday almost exactly at the city line between Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach where the birds were hit and ended in Holmes Beach, between 30th and 27th streets, where the protected turtle nests, designated by stakes, were run over, said Suzi Fox, executive director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring.
"According to witnesses, the people who were on the vehicle were laughing," Fox said. "Witnesses report that they aimed for the nests. You could hear the breaking of the stakes. There were a lot of people on the beach at that time. People were screaming at them to stop. It's a miracle they didn't hit any people. I'm upset about the chicks and turtles, but I am more upset that a child could have been hurt and that is unacceptable for us. We protect nature but we protect our children first."
By Sunday afternoon, police had not found the perpetrators, and Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch, which had found the damage at 6:30 a.m. Sunday, had posted "extra eyes" on the beach from 30th Street down to 27th Street since the turtles are due to hatch any day now, Fox said.
"We want everyone to watch for little tracks that could now come out of nowhere," Fox said.
"We put the stakes back in the best we could but it would be hard to know the exact locations. People should take extra care from 30th Street down to 27th Street."
Witnesses said the vehicle driving on the beach had one large headlight, which could mean a motorcycle. But others think it could have been a all-terrain vehicle or some other three-wheeled vehicle, Fox said.
"It wasn't a car," Fox said. "But exactly what it was we are not 100 percent sure."
Witnesses gave officers with Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach police departments a description of the man and woman on the vehicle, which sped off the beach near Cortez Road, but police had not been able to find them or the vehicle Sunday, Fox said.
The chicks were going through the "exercise" portion of their lives when killed, Fox said.
"They are trained to put their heads down and lay still when they hear their parents," Fox said. "They would not have tried to get away from the vehicle."
"This is totally unacceptable on the beaches of Anna Maria Island," Fox added. "This has everything to do with the not only the safety of wildlife, but the safety or our children, residents and visitors. We need to find the person who did this and they need to be brought to justice."
The suspects also injured one black skimmer chick, which is now in rehabilitation, Fox said.
"The injured chick is not doing well," he added.
Members of the Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch won't know until the nests can be legally checked if any or all of the roughly 100 eggs per nest were destroyed, Fox said.
"For every egg that is damaged there will be a fine, which I believe is $100 per egg," Fox said. "There could be 500 eggs in those five nests."
If it is determined that the turtle nests were damaged on purpose, there could be civil penalties up to $25,000 and criminal penalties up to $100,000 plus a year in prison, Fox said.
No one other than police and AMI Turtle Watch are legally allowed to use motorized vehicles on the beach, Fox said.
Saturday was the fourth time this year that nests were disturbed, Fox said.
Upset people took to Facebook to comment about the incident.
"If you can't respect the beach and the wildlife that calls it home, just stay away," wrote Debbie Tucker.
"This is so sad," commented Donna Puleo. "And so unnecessary. What is wrong with people?"
The loggerhead eggs are typically a few inches to eight inches below the surface, Fox said. The vehicle was going fast enough to splinter the stakes, Fox said.
"If the eggs were close to the surface, they would be destroyed," Fox said.
Each egg could produce a 200-pound loggerhead turtle. Loggerheads are in a threatened, not endangered, federal protection status, Fox said.