Florida’s latest assault on sea turtles and why the global community should be concerned
Updated: Oct 21
July 19, 2021
Introduced by Jeff Goodman
In this time of dramatic climate change, habitat destruction, over fishing and species loss around the world, one would hope that governments and local authorities would be pro-active in legislation, education and direct action to address all these issues in a positive way. Ashamedly this is all too often not the case. A prime example of this is the plight of the Sea Turtles in Florida as witnessed and reported by Staci-lee Sherwood, Founder & former Director S.T.A.R.S. Sea Turtle Awareness Rescue Stranding , former founding member and staff Sea Turtle Oversight Protection & former staff at Highland Beach statewide morning survey program.
By Staci-lee Sherwood
Florida is THE major nesting habitat for Loggerheads and one of the few places left for Leatherbacks. You would think being home to such endangered species Florida would work to ensure their survival but that’s not the case. In 2008 Richard and Zen Whitecloud were struck by how few hatchlings actually made it to the water because of all the light pollution from the land.
A nighttime rescue program was started in the hopes of saving any hatchlings that crawled toward all the artificial light that drew them like a powerful drug. Sea Turtles hatch and follow the bright sea horizon which for millions of years was the east blanketed by millions of shining stars and the moon. Not anymore, now the west is so illuminated by all the artificial lights the hatchlings think that is home and crawl towards it. They will follow the lights until they end up being run over by cars, fall into a storm drain or die from exhaustion and dehydration. Every morning the beaches throughout the state would be covered with death tracks going everywhere other then the ocean. This was no secret no mystery.
As far back as 1996 Dr Kirt Rusenko, who ran the Sea Turtle program in Boca Raton for over 25 years, stated “The lighting in Broward County is minimally better than it was 20 years ago” referring to the lack of local laws and abysmal enforcement or guidance from the state. “When I began work as Marine Turtle Permit Holder #041 in 1996, I thought the many sea turtle hatchling disorientation reports I sent to FWC would make a difference.” Time has shown that not to be the case. Death by light pollution is a global problem that negatively impacts many species.
The same year I joined this small dedicated group of rescuers I also started to work the morning survey on a state permit. This was the only program that actually had conservation elements to it. It involved recording any crawls and marking all new nests. I did this program everyday for 9 seasons while also doing the night time rescue program almost every night for 11 years. The morning survey was on Highland Beach, a very dark quiet beach where light pollution was kept to a dull roar and disorientation (DO) by hatchlings was a rarity. The hatchling tracks from the nest to the water went almost in a straight line, they did not fan out into a triangle. I saw thousands of nests over the years and it was always the same: straight to the ocean on Highland Beach but the tracks were all over the place in Broward and most of the other state beaches.
Tracks from disorientated sea turtle hatchlings
According to Sea Turtle Oversight Protection’s (S.T.O.P.) own data they have, to date, rescued approx 250,000 hatchings that would have died from light pollution in the past 10 years. That means they only rescue about 25,000 hatchlings a year or about 10% that disorientate. We know that Broward County has a disorientation rate of about 75% based on 10 years of record keeping while many other counties have an equal or greater light pollution problem. Because there is never anyone out there at night to save the hatchlings or record their death it’s easy to dismiss this and frame it as a local county problem and not a statewide problem. In Broward about 25% of all hatchlings that make it out of the nest actually make it on their own to the water. That means maybe 35-40% of all baby sea turtles make it to the water but only with a rescue and from there they face a toxic soup in polluted waters and a lifelong perilous journey. This was the nightmare I witnessed for 11 years. No other county has anyone out at night, no other Sea Turtle program involves nighttime rescue.
According to state data for 2020 they had a total of 133,493 nests (Loggerhead, Green and Leatherback). At a DO statewide rate of approx 50%, this could mean a loss of approx 6.671.650 hatchlings that could have made it to the water. Once in the water it’s estimated that hatchlings have a 1 in 10,000 chance to make it to adulthood. But first they have to get into the water.
In the modern era that is no longer feasible, even if the agency wanted to assist them there are just too many light sources. At such a low rate of survival it’s not sustainable long term; this species cannot survive by losing so many hatchlings. I have long felt that indoor hatcheries with a controlled temperature is the only chance to prevent or stave off extinction. This would allow hatchlings to emerge without losing millions to light pollution.
In a 2020 permit holders meeting conducted by the state, they had a workshop of agencies and NGO’s about the light pollution problem. Not one person from any agency, not one person from any group had ever rescued a disorientated hatchling or been to Broward to see the rescue program, or had any firsthand in-the -field knowledge of the problem. Not one actual rescuer was involved but they should have been.
In utter disbelief to those rescue volunteers, the state decided to pull most of the permits S.T.O.P. had for their volunteers and end the program all together next year. This severe downsize is only for this year as next year rescue programs will cease and the death rate for hatchlings will soar once again. How will the turtles ever be able to hang on ?
In the words of a local resident who has seen first hand the work the rescuers do and understands the need to keep them: “These volunteers are a vital presence in our community; As residents, we urge the individuals responsible for permits to give thoughtful reconsideration of any plan that would reduce or impede the work of these volunteers.. As with these giant sea turtles, the overall impact of this volunteer effort is irreplaceable. Sincerely, Linda Thompson Gonzalez & Mario E. Palazzi.”
Many local residents chimed in that last year they “saw so many tracks in the morning that were going everywhere except the ocean.” It’s clear that these newborn Sea Turtle’s survival is tied to whether or not there is someone out there to pick them up and place them in the water.
According to Casey Jones, founder of Sea Turtle Watch in Jacksonville: “It’s definitely going to be heartbreaking to lose hatchlings because of the volunteers not being able to be out there on the beach,” Jones explained. He said the focus needs to be on the bright lights that attract turtles to the land, which he claims, end with almost certain death. Like I said this is a statewide problem.
Many people who witness a Sea Turtle nest hatch for the first time can’t believe the light problem is that bad. Then suddenly a nest hatches and they all scamper in every direction. They suddenly cry out ‘OMG, catch them, hurry where did they go?’ Then they look at all those artificial lights, start counting all those nests and the numbers in their head start churning. Now they actually see how it could never be just a few hundred hatchlings or a rare occurrence but a nightly horror show that never ends.
If you would like to help please contact the following and politely ask they reinstate the rescue permits ASAP:
1. Robbin Trindell admin sea turtle programs for Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Robbin.Trindell@myfwc.com 850.922.4330
2. Meghan Koperski signs off on all permits for Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Meghan.Koperski@myfwc.com 561.575.5407
For more information about the plight of Florida’s Sea Turtles contact: Richard Whitecloud Director of S.T.O.P. on Whitecloud@seaturtleop.org
Pictured below is a hatchout very rare in florida Highland Beach, Florida
Click here for the video interview about sea turtles
**ADDED INFO & proof that FWC lies when they claim a few rescuers in 1 county is preventing female turtles from nesting Their OWN data for 202o shows that 'FALSE CRAWL' or NNE as listed is when a turtle attempts to nest but does not. Every county has a very high incidence of this and in many counties the attempts are almost TWICE as high as successful nests. This proves that fwc lies and that there is WAY TOO MANY PEOPLE on the beach like tourists, coastal residents and throngs of people at these turtle walks and hatchlings releases which do nothing for conservation.
In a healthy thriving ecosystem the percentage of false crawls from a natural event like a storm or predators would be a very low number maybe 5-10%. FWC has been loathe to do their taxpayer job of preserving these turtles which do NOT belong to florida but to the world. Florida is on track to kill off this species and crash it globally
To read more about the struggle of sea turtles as reported by ABC News
Also published Scubaverse July 19, 2021