Florida plans to kick sea turtle rescuers off the beach, calling them a threat to environment

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Florida wildlife commission has identified a new menace to the marine environment: volunteers who protect sea turtle nests.

For more than a decade, unpaid guardians have watched over sea turtle nests in Broward County, rescuing thousands of hatchlings led astray by artificial lights.

Now the state wants to cut the number of volunteers as a step toward ejecting them completely from the beach. The state wildlife commission told three sea turtle rescue groups that their nighttime vigils are unnecessary and harmful, saying in a letter “the increased human presence on the beach at night during nesting and hatching season in effect endangers the health and safety of marine life.”

The turtle groups find this reasoning laughable, saying lights from cities still blaze over the beach, drawing hatchlings inland.

“They’re saying they would rather have dead sea turtle hatchlings in storm drains, parking lots and in the roadways, and dehydrated on the beaches, versus having our rescue staff, our volunteers on the beach,” said Richard WhiteCloud, founder and director of Sea Turtle Oversight Protection, which has more than 140 volunteers. “People who are out there doing the right thing are being punished.”

WhiteCloud promises a legal fight, and activists who volunteer to spend hours each night guarding the nests are unlikely to go quietly.

“I am absolutely going to go out and rescue these animals, whether it’s legal or not,” said Dr. Holly Wilson, a physician who has guarded nests for years. “We’re not getting a salary. We just want the turtles in the water. If this goes through, turtles are going to die.”

The fight is taking place over beaches used for thousands of years by female loggerhead, green and leatherback turtles. These behemoths, which weigh hundreds of pounds, crawl ashore at night, dig holes and deposit 100 or so golf-ball-sized eggs. When the eggs hatch, the baby turtles race toward the brightest light, an instinct that served them well when it drew them toward moonlight shining on the ocean.

But condo towers, hotels and restaurants generate lights that draw hatchlings inland, where they get run over, dry out, or end up easy prey for birds and raccoons. Although cities have restricted lighting during nesting season, violations occur, and even with compliance, the sea turtle groups say enough light shines over the beaches to disorient hatchlings.

During nesting season, which runs from March 1 to Oct. 31, volunteers watch nests that are about to hatch, prepared to gather wayward hatchlings in buckets and bring them to the ocean. Sea Turtle Oversight Protection has rescued more than 260,000 hatchlings since the group formed 14 years ago, WhiteCloud said.

The total number of volunteers involved is more than 200, although not all are on the beach at the same time. They engage in these rescues with permits from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, since such documentation is necessary for them to handle animals protected under the Endangered Species Act.

But in an April 28 letter sent to Sea Turtle Oversight Protection, the state wildlife commission said it planned to reduce the number of permits for this season and then phase them out completely. The agency said it’s taking similar action with the other two groups, South Florida Audubon Society and Sea Turtle Awareness Rescue Stranding.

“We originally authorized hatchling recovery and release programs as a temporary measure on Broward County beaches where local governments had recently adopted ordinances to reduce lights visible from the marine turtle nesting beaches,” wrote Ron Mezich, section leader of the wildlife commission’s Imperiled Species Management Section Division. “Now that all local governments have a mechanism to address beachfront lighting, we have determined there is no longer a need for these programs to continue.”

In a statement to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the FWC said the agency appreciates the volunteers’ efforts to protect turtles but that their activities end up putting too many people on the beach at night, where they could interfere with turtle nesting.

“The federal Sea Turtle Recovery Plan identifies human presence on the beach at night as a significant threat to nesting and hatchling sea turtles,” the agency said. “Such disturbances may deter females from emerging from the ocean onto the beach to nest or cause them to abandon nesting attempts. Females blocked from nesting may shed their eggs at sea or on the beach or leave the beach before completely covering the nest.”

The reduction in permits would cut Sea Turtle Oversight Protection’s volunteer force from 144 to 48, WhiteCloud said. Audubon’s volunteer force would drop from 50 to 25, according to Doug Young, who runs the Audubon rescue group. The third group could not be reached for comment.

Eliminating their permits, as the FWC plans to do, would shut them down.

Sea turtles roam thousands of miles through the world’s oceans, with females returning to land only to lay eggs — often to the very beaches where they hatched.

Florida’s beaches are the most important in the United States for sea turtle nests. For loggerheads, the state is even more vital, accounting for about 40% of the world’s nests. In Broward County, last year’s nesting totaled 2,835 for loggerheads, 277 for greens and 29 for leatherbacks.

Despite the state’s claim that cities were addressing the lighting problem, disorientations still occur at a high rate. They took place at 567 nests out of 2,098 observed last year, for a disorientation rate of 27%, according to an annual report by biologists at Nova Southeastern University, which conducts nesting surveys on behalf of Broward County. The cities with the highest rates of disorientation were Fort Lauderdale, Sea Ranch Lakes and Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.

Doug Young, of Audubon, called the state’s decision “very disappointing.”

“The problem of turtle-unfriendly lighting is not going away,” he said. “It’s not going to be gone next year. There have been improvements. None of us expect that in 12 months or 24 months, the problem in Broward County, which is one of the most densely populated beach areas in the state, that the disorientation problem will be solved.”