Addressing Florida’s Beachfront Lighting Problem

Issue 3, 2011 Article:

* Addressing Florida’s Beachfront Lighting Problem
* STC’s Legal Victory for Sea Turtles

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Addressing Florida’s Beachfront Lighting Problem

By Karen Shudes

The Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) is implementing a bold new program to address a problem that kills thousands of sea turtles every year in Florida—artificial lighting that disorients newborn hatchlings trying to find their way to the sea. Considering that about 90% of all sea turtle nesting in the United States takes place on Florida beaches, the loss of hatchlings caused by poorly managed light represents a major obstacle to the recovery of U.S. turtle populations.

With funding provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife, as well as supporting grants from other organizations and foundations, STC is working with local officials and property owners to darken nesting beaches with chronic lighting problems. We are developing and implementing programs to educate local government officials about the impacts of beachfront lighting on sea turtles and providing grants to property owners for the installation of “turtle friendly” lighting. This initiative is protecting and ensuring the safe emergence of thousands of hatchlings each year that otherwise would have been disoriented by lights.

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. Additionally, these lights cause problems for hatchlings as they emerge from their nests. Hatchlings instinctively crawl toward the brightest direction, which is towards the ocean on a dark beach. Bright artificial lights disorient hatchlings, causing them to crawl inland and away from the ocean or wander aimlessly on the beach, all the while burning up vital stored energy needed for survival at 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 marine predators.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) developed a model lighting ordinance as a guideline to help coastal counties and municipalities in Florida develop their own local ordinances to protect sea turtles from the adverse effects of artificial lighting. However, not all coastal governments have adopted a lighting ordinance, and a number of those that have lack the funding or political will to properly enforce the regulations. As a result, there are still many important nesting beaches in Florida with high disorientation rates due to bright beach front lighting.

To help improve the implementation of lighting regulations, STC is developing a sea turtle lighting training program tailored for local code enforcement personnel. This hands-on, field-oriented program will train code enforcement personnel to identify the kinds of lighting sources and fixtures (e.g., wall and ceiling mount, pathway, pool, parking lot and garage lighting) that can negatively impact sea turtles. 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. Local field trips will be conducted to view coastal properties with problematic lights and to assess possible lighting retrofits that eliminate impacts to sea turtle nesting habitat. As part of the training course, educational videos will be provided to code enforcement staff.

The most exciting component of STC’s new lighting program involves working with private beachfront property owners to retrofit problem lights using the latest sea turtle-friendly technologies. In Florida in 2007, an estimated 64,433 sea turtle hatchlings were disoriented by artificial light pollution caused primarily by unshielded light fixtures and short wavelength (white) bulbs on multi-family dwellings. On average, nearly 3% of all nests deposited in the state each year are disoriented (1,350 in 2009). FWCC estimates that there are currently between 700 and 1,000 private properties with problem lighting on Florida beaches. Since new coastal developments are required to adhere to stringent state-approved lighting plans for the protection of sea turtles, the ability to systematically fix lights at older, existing developments presents an important opportunity to achieve long-lasting conservation benefits for Florida’s sea turtle nesting populations.

After identifying properties with lights causing disorientations, STC’s lighting staff experts work with property owners to design a lighting retrofit plan. Once all parties agree to the proposed modifications, STC provides partial funding to help replace all the problem lights and fixtures with the best-available “turtle friendly” lights for each situation. The retrofitted fixtures redirect light away from the beach to where it is needed; the light source itself is shielded from view on the beach, and the actual light sources are converted to high efficiency LED bulbs in the amber or red long wavelength spectrum (which is far less disorienting to sea turtles). Utilizing this strategy, STC already has corrected lighting problems at over 40 large beachfront properties—in each case retrofitting an average of 53 unshielded fixtures and short wavelength bulbs at each property. The program continues to correct lighting problems at large, multi-family condos and resorts around Florida with the most egregious histories of causing turtle disorientations. The project already has measurably reduced disorientation rates in front of the properties where lighting retrofits have occurred, and as STC continues to add new properties to the project our efforts will directly save the lives of thousands of hatchlings each and every year.

In working to correct lighting problems at various types of facilities, STC has identified a lack of turtle-friendly fixtures for certain types of situations. For example, state law requires pool decks to be illuminated to a certain level, but meeting those requirements currently can not be accomplished without impacting sea turtles if the pool deck is near the beach. To address this and other needs for suitable lights, STC worked with a specialty lighting manufacturer, Argent LED, to design, test and produce a new, versatile sea turtle-friendly light appropriate for use adjacent to nesting beaches. This new light will fill an important need in the types of lighting fixtures available by balancing sea turtle protection efforts with human safety needs. The 18 watt amber LED bollard is 2 feet tall, however, the light emitted is only 9 inches off the ground, thus allowing light to spread evenly across a surface up to 30 feet. The side of the bollard that faces the beach after installation has zero light emission, and additional side, top, and bottom shielding can be modified to block any light that may be seen from various angles on the beach. This specialized light is in its final phases before production and will soon be available for purchase.

STC’s efforts to train lighting code enforcement personnel, convert problem fixtures and bulbs to sea turtle-friendly lighting, develop new sea turtle-friendly lighting options, and to educate people about sea turtle lighting solutions are of critical importance to the long-term recovery of U.S. sea turtle populations.