Protecting a Ribbon of Sand

Issue 1, 2005 Articles:

* Dramatic Decline Observed in Florida Loggerhead Nesting
* Protecting a Ribbon of Sand

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Protecting a Ribbon of Sand

By David Godfrey & Gary Appelson

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation is leading efforts to safeguard globally important sea turtle nesting beaches in Florida. The thin ribbon of sand surrounding the Florida peninsula is home to about 90% of all sea turtle nesting in the continental United States. On the ocean side, this fragile habitat is sculpted by rising sea levels, natural and human-caused erosion, and the not-so-occasional hurricane. From the upland side, this prime nesting habitat is under increasing pressure from human development and its associated impacts. Together, these forces literally are squeezing some of the world’s most important sea turtle nesting beaches into oblivion.

The fate of Florida sea turtle populations, and thus the bulk of turtles nesting in the U.S., depends largely on the coastal management policies of the State of Florida. For over a decade, with increasing effectiveness, CCC has participated vocally in Florida’s legislative and regulatory process in order to influence policies that guide coastal activities such as beach nourishment, oceanfront development, and sea wall construction. As informed and tireless advocates for sea turtles, CCC has made considerable progress in slowing the loss of nesting habitat. However, current coastal management policies still have Florida on a path that will further deteriorate natural beaches and impede sea turtle recovery. As reported in the cover story of this issue of the Velador, loggerhead turtles face considerable threats both in the open ocean and on the nesting beach. If this species is going to have any chance of recovery, the loss of nesting areas must stop.

Background Facts
More than half of Florida’s 825 miles of sandy beaches are eroding, and 38% are in a state of “critical erosion.” These numbers are likely worse following the hurricanes. In 2005, the state and federal government will spend almost $200 million on beach and dune restoration programs in Florida. Even after these projects are completed, Florida beaches will be just as vulnerable to storms and erosion as they were before the hurricanes. State policies continue to encourage high-density development—even on critically eroding beaches. This unwise development increases the demand for either sand pumping or sea wall construction. An increasing number of beach building projects are taking place during sea turtle nesting season—resulting in the relocation of large numbers of sea turtle nests. Each time nests are moved, chances are that fewer hatchlings will survive. Over half of all new homes, hotels and condos built since the coastal permitting program was implemented a couple of decades ago, now stand within state-designated “critical erosion” zones. Following the hurricanes, State redevelopment funds are supporting the rebuilding process, regardless of whether rebuilding will take place adjacent to an accreting or a critically eroding beach. Sea walls extend along an estimated 20% of Florida’s sandy beaches, and in some counties up to 40% of their coastlines are lined with walls. Scores of new sea wall permits have been issued in the wake of the hurricanes. And finally, adding to our concern for the fate of turtle nesting beaches, Florida’s coastal policies ignore mounting evidence that sea levels will continue to rise.

In the wake of the devastating 2004 hurricane season, CCC has recruited new allies and galvanized numerous old partnerships. Together, we have called for a thorough reassessment of Florida’s coastal management policies. From the Governor’s Office, to the leadership of the Florida Legislature, and among the heads of Florida’s natural resource agencies, this call for coastal policy reform has received broad support. It has been 20 years since Florida adopted its current beach management regulations, so perhaps reform is simply an idea that’s time has come. Or perhaps state leaders learned some important lessons following four direct hits by major hurricanes. Whatever the reasons, CCC applauds state leaders for their honest and forward-thinking acceptance of the need for major coastal reforms. These changes won’t occur over night. As one legislative leader put it, “Coastal policy reform will be a marathon, not a sprint. CCC needs to be in it for the long haul.” We will be.

CCC’s 2004-2005 Florida legislative initiatives

During the 2005 Legislative Session, while promoting its ideas for policy reform, CCC has been busy opposing legislation that would threaten sea turtle habitat and supporting several good coastal policy initiatives. Some of CCC’s most notable activities regarding coastal policies are highlighted below:

· In December 2004, the Florida Legislature held a special session to address hurricane recovery issues. The State hurriedly passed a $64 million dollar emergency beach nourishment bill. CCC was the only environmental organization monitoring this legislation and testifying at the committee hearings. We endorsed the funding for beach sand, but encouraged that the bulk be used for dune restoration. We also asked legislators to dedicate some funds to studying creative policies to decrease the future need for perpetual sand nourishment and sea wall construction.

· During the regular 2005 Legislative Session, CCC staff met personally with legislative leaders, state agency directors and staff in the Governor’s Office to explain the need for a reassessment of coastal policy. We found considerable agreement among state leaders, and several avenues now are in the works for pursuing policy reforms.

· CCC strongly opposed a bill that would rewrite the coastal armoring statute to streamline permitting of an unstudied, experimental armoring technology. Based solely on the claims of the manufacturer, the bill would have established a “stepped” form of geo-textile tubing (pictured at left) as the preferred type of armoring in Florida and authorized its installation all around the state. The technology consists of enormous sand filled tubes stacked 7 feet high against the dune and sloping seaward 25 feet onto the beach. The structure would initially be covered with sand. No scientific studies have been done to determine if the technology performs as claimed to protect the dunes from erosion or how it affects federally protected sea turtles and their nests. Not surprisingly, the legislation was initiated by the inventor/seller holding patents on the design. CCC focused attention on the dangers of this bill. The bill was finally withdrawn from consideration. CCC worked with legislators and agency staff to call for a systematic study of how this technology performs on high-energy beaches where turtles also nest.· In 2005 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for the first time, exercised jurisdiction over certain coastal armoring projects in Florida. CCC worked with federal agencies to develop permit conditions for sea wall construction, including the experimental geo-tube described above, that help ensure the beach and turtle nesting habitat are protected to the maximum extent possible.

· Prior to the legislative session, CCC initiated a joint letter to Florida’s Governor Jeb Bush and legislative leaders calling for a review of coastal management policies. Two other major conservation organizations joined us on the letter. The letter is posted on the CCC website.

· CCC worked with legislators to draft a “Coastal Hazard Notification” bill. The bill requires that the seller of real property on the coast provide a disclosure to the buyer that the property may be subject to erosion. The disclosure also provides directions to prospective buyers for determining whether the State has declared a particular stretch of beach as “critically eroding.” It also notifies the buyer that sea turtle protection laws may impact future construction activities on the property. The purpose of the legislation is to increase transparency in the sales transaction, to help avoid litigation, and to increase public awareness of the dynamic, sometime risky nature of building and living on the Florida coastline. Senate Bill 0964: Relating to Coastal Property Sales/Disclosures.

· CCC is actively involved in supporting and providing input on the Florida Oceans and Coastal Resources Conservation and Management Act. This substantial piece of legislation establishes a much-needed scientific commission that will be charged with studying and proposing changes in Florida’s ocean and coastal policy regulations. It’s the first step in a process that could lead to creative improvements in state policies designed to protect coastal resources that are vital to sea turtles and their habitats. Senate 1670: Relating to Oceans & Coastal Resource Management.