Managing the Impacts of Artificial Light for Sea Turtles

Issue 2, 2014

Managing the Impacts of Artificial Light for Sea Turtles

By Gwen Oberholtzer

I will never forget the first time I saw a sea turtle hatchling open its eyes to the world. I was performing sea turtle nesting surveys on Hutchinson Island in Florida and the time had come for the first nests to start hatching. I was lucky enough to arrive while some of the hatchlings were still emerging from the sand in the early morning hours. I felt an immediate connection and an overwhelming desire to protect these tiny, vulnerable creatures at my feet, struggling to extricate themselves from the sand to reach the sea. It was one of the most magical moments I have ever experienced. Unfortunately, that magical moment was immediately followed by extreme panic when I noticed numerous, delicate flipper tracks in the sand that trailed off from the nest in the opposite direction of the water and over the dune. I began searching frantically for their whereabouts, knowing that they may not have much time to live after sunrise if I didn’t find them quickly. My panic was soon replaced by profound grief when I came upon numerous small, crushed bodies of turtle hatchlings on the asphalt of Highway A1A. They had been lured away from the sea and into the road by bright streetlights. I was too late…

Unfortunately, my experience is by no means an isolated incident. This scenario likely repeats itself somewhere in Florida every single day during the nest hatching season; and year after year; resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of newborn sea turtle hatchlings and occasionally adult turtles as well. Artificial lights cause problems for hatchlings as they emerge from their nests and instinctively crawl toward the brightest direction, which would be towards the ocean on a dark beach. Bright artificial lights disorient hatchlings, causing them to crawl inland and away from the ocean or to wander aimlessly on the beach, all the while burning up vital stored energy that is crucial for survival if they do ever manage to reach the sea. Disoriented hatchlings often die from dehydration, exhaustion, terrestrial predation and even passing cars. If they make it to the ocean, they have a lower chance of survival due to energy loss, making it harder to reach important off-shore habitats and increasing their susceptibility to countless marine predators. Artificial lighting is an anthropogenic phenomenon that nesting turtles didn’t historically face. Nesting turtles once had no trouble finding a quiet, dark beach on which to nest, but now they must share the beach with millions of tourists, coastal residents, and businesses. Many of Florida’s beaches are now lined with oceanfront condominiums, houses and hotels. Bright lights from these developments can illuminate the beach and discourage female turtles from coming ashore to nest or cause female turtles to select less-than-optimal nesting sites. Managing the problem of artificial light pollution is particularly important in Florida, where approximately 90% of all sea turtle nesting in the United States takes place. The loss of hatchlings caused by poorly managed light represents a major obstacle to the recovery of U.S. turtle populations.

Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) has worked aggressively since 2010 to correct problematic lighting and educate the public regarding the devastating effects of artificial light pollution on sea turtles, as well as the benefits of ‘sea turtle-friendly’ lighting, and this year is no exception. Under the guidance of Sea Turtle Lighting Director Karen Shudes, STC’s bold initiatives to address problematic lighting, which involve working with private beachfront property owners to retrofit problem lights using the latest sea turtle-friendly technologies, have seen major successes in managing the effect of problematic lights at properties that had previously been responsible for the disorientation of nesting adult females and newborn hatchlings each year. STC has completed over 80 large-scale lighting retrofit projects in Florida’s coastal communities through funding provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, as well as supporting grants from other organizations and foundations. STC’s lighting retrofit work has been immensely successful and has achieved significant decreases in sea turtle disorientations to retrofitted properties. Thousands of hatchling sea turtles have reached the sea that otherwise would have been disoriented by lights. This huge success has paved the way for additional funding to continue our crucial work.

In March 2014, STC was awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund (GEBF) to expand lighting retrofit work in the Florida Panhandle, specifically in Franklin, Gulf, and Walton Counties. GEBF is administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which received a significant portion of the criminal fines levied against BP and other parties responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The funds support wildlife protection and recovery programs that are helping mitigate for impacts of the spill. With this latest grant, STC has set an impressive goal of targeting 45-50 properties for lighting retrofits, which will result in a minimum of 12 additional miles of nesting beach restored to darkness during the 2-year project. STC also expects to document a 75% decrease in the number of hatchling disorientation events reported at retrofitted properties. In addition to retrofitting problem lights at participating properties, STC will conduct native dune vegetation planting to provide an additional buffer to reduce or eliminate unwanted light on the beach and to enhance nesting habitat at various project sites.

As part of STC’s ongoing effort to improve light management and enforcement of sea turtle lighting ordinances in Florida, STC also will use GEBF funding to develop a sea turtle lighting workshop tailored to local code enforcement personnel, lighting designers, architects, lighting manufacturers and distributors. Providing this training to key professionals in the public and private sectors will help builders voluntarily utilize best management practices for lighting during the design phase – thus reducing the need for enforcement actions at the local and state level. It is STC’s goal to use the workshops developed under this phase of the project as a pilot program for a formal accredited course that provides continuing education credits needed for maintaining professional certifications. An educational video will also be produced to provide to code enforcement staff as part of their training requirements. This training will enable code enforcement officers to properly educate property owners and recommend sea turtle friendly lighting alternatives, which limit impacts to turtles while meeting the safety and visibility needs of people.

STC’s ongoing emphasis on coastal lighting will result in lasting improvements to critical sea turtle nesting habitat in the Florida Panhandle by permanently reducing or eliminating artificial light pollution on nesting beaches with a chronic history of disorientations and death of hatchlings. We are coordinating our lighting work with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which closely monitors lighting issues in Florida and received its own grant to support lighting improvements on public lands. STC staff has been busy with the initial stages of workshop development and identifying target properties for lighting retrofits. We now are getting ready to conduct site visits to beaches in the Florida Panhandle to ground-truth disorientation data and perform lighting surveys from the beach in order to identify problem light sources. STC is excited at the opportunity to continue our innovative lighting retrofit program and look forward to reporting new accomplishments in the near future.

Gwen Oberholtzer is a new staff member hired to help with STC’s Beachfront Lighting Project work in Florida.