VERO BEACH, FL — Florida sea turtle advocates claimed a major victory today, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to regulate sea wall construction and protect sea turtles in Indian River County. The County agreed to develop the HCP in 1999, after being sued by the Caribbean Conservation Corp. (CCC) for illegally authorizing sea walls on important sea turtle nesting beaches. CCC was represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice.
For over five years, the Caribbean Conservation Corp has been involved in negotiations with Indian River County in eastern Florida and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to approve an agreement that protects turtle nesting areas from incidental harm due to the construction of illegal emergency sea walls. The county submitted a habitat conservation plan that affects nesting areas for threatened or endangered sea turtle species, including loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill and green turtles.
Because sea turtles dig nests and deposit their eggs on beaches, turtles are often unable to dig nests where seawalls and other forms of “coastal armoring” are placed on beaches. Armoring can also lead to additional erosion of turtle nesting habitat down the beach. At the same time, coastal property owners, including many affected by the recent hurricanes that came ashore at Indian River County, often must resort to sea wall construction as a last resort to save property threatened by erosion. The idea behind an HCP is that it regulates activities that harm endangered species by allowing a certain level of harm, or “take”, in exchange for a range of activities carried out to protect the species.
“This HCP will require Florida and its coastal residents to come to terms with how sea walls must be regulated to protect sea turtles,” said David Godfrey, Executive Director of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation. “This plan is a major step forward for sea turtle conservation and sets the standard for future sea wall construction throughout Florida,” said David Guest, attorney for Earthjustice.
“Florida’s East Coast beaches provide nesting habitat for the world’s largest remaining population of threatened loggerhead turtles, as well as globally important populations of endangered green and leatherback turtles,” said Godfrey. “For these species to survive, Florida must protect its nesting beaches. This HCP takes a major step in that direction, while also providing options for homeowners faced with severe erosion caused by the recent hurricanes.”
In exchange for the ability to authorize some new sea walls, Indian River County must enforce a strict ordinance regulating lighting along the coast, carefully monitor all sea turtle activity along county beaches, conduct sea turtle education Programs and eliminate other threats to sea turtles in the county.
CCC has also encouraged the county to direct more funding toward the acquisition and protection of undeveloped coastal properties.
Because all species of marine turtles are either threatened or endangered, any activity that eliminates or reduces reproductive success poses a significant threat to the survival of the species. Such activities can only be allowed under specific provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act and state law that tracks that federal law.
The Sea Turtle Conservancy, formerly known as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, is a not-for-profit, 501(c)3 organization based in Florida with offices and projects in several other locations. The Sea Turtle Conservancy is the oldest and most accomplished sea turtle organization in the world. Since its founding in 1959, the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s work has greatly improved the survival outlook for several species of sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy has as its mission the protection of sea turtles and the habitats upon which they depend. To achieve its mission, the Sea Turtle Conservancy uses research, habitat protection, public education, community outreach, networking and advocacy as its basic tools. These tools are applied in both international and domestic programs focusing on geographic areas that are globally important to sea turtle survival. For more information, visit the STC website at www.conserveturtles.org or call (800) 678-7853.