In the weeks and months following the unprecedented quadruple-strike of hurricanes in Florida, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation has been working overtime to assess and minimize the long-term impacts of the storms on sea turtle survival. Unfortunately, the news so far has been very concerning. Nearly 90% of all sea turtle nesting in the continental U.S. takes place in Florida, with most of it concentrated on the Central East Coast. This is exactly where hurricanes Frances and Jeanne came ashore, and they hit right in the middle of nesting season. Meanwhile, hurricanes Charley and Ivan impacted nesting beaches along Florida’s West Coast and the Panhandle, respectively.
One of the hardest hit areas was the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. Named after CCC’s founding scientific director, this 20-mile stretch of coastline is the most important nesting site for green turtles and loggerheads in the U.S. While we will never know exactly how many eggs and hatchlings were lost, one estimate suggests over half of the entire season’s nests in Florida were washed away by the hurricanes. That amounts to millions of eggs! This represents a tremendous loss, but sea turtles, just like Florida’s beaches, have weathered hurricanes for millennia. Over time, natural beaches would recover to a healthy profile and nesting would return to normal. However, Florida’s coastline is no longer in its natural state. Throughout the peninsula, turtle nesting beaches have been built upon extensively, and they are being altered by inlets, jetties, sea walls and repetitive sand pumping projects.
The long-term threat to sea turtles resulting from these storms will be determined by the way humans respond to protect coastal property. Right now scores of beachfront residents are hurrying to get permits to build sea walls or other experimental structures that pose a direct risk to sea turtles. There is no doubt that sea walls increase erosion on the adjacent beach, ultimately creating the need for more sea walls. Numerous examples of increased erosion in front of and to the sides of sea walls can be seen in the wake of the recent storms. A textbook example is the extreme erosion around the Wabasso seawall in Indian River County. In the mid-90s, CCC filed suit to stop construction of this and similar walls in Florida. Not only did the presence of this massive vertical wall greatly increase erosion on adjacent public property, the wall failed to safeguard many of the homes it was designed to protect.
Numerous coastal municipalities are also planning to rapidly dump sand on their beaches. While sand nourishment is almost always preferable to hard armoring, if not regulated closely, even these activities can add to the one-time loss of nests caused by the storms. The beach armoring and sand-dumping occurring now and over the next year could forever alter and degrade some of the most important sea turtle nesting beaches on Earth.
Perhaps never before have the weaknesses in Florida’s coastal policies been more evident. Even as coastal residents are picking through the remnants of their hurricane-ravaged homes and government officials are adding up the high costs of vanished sand nourishment projects, some government agencies are discussing streamlining procedures for rebuilding on the beachfront. In the process, sea turtles are being squeezed into oblivion and the natural shoreline is disappearing in front of us.
To limit the potential long-term impacts, CCC is in constant contact with local, state and federal regulators, and we are providing strong recommendations to avoid the use of armoring on the coast. CCC is also advocating the landward relocation of structures that were condemned or destroyed by the storms and are now sitting on the edge of the frontal dune. CCC staff members are also meeting with the heads of Florida’s regulatory agencies to discourage policies that permit new construction on eroding shorelines. In short, we are advancing the notion that it is in all our interests, including sea turtles, to challenge short-sighted approaches to coastal management and to stimulate discussions about more environmentally and economically sound options.
The impacts of Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne to Florida’s beach and dune environment raise the issue of whether local, state and federal agencies need to reevaluate their coastal management policies. Should rampant development of homes and high-rises on critically eroding shorelines be allowed to continue? Are new laws and financial incentives needed to encourage the landward relocation of heavily damaged and vulnerable coastal properties? CCC believes a major updating of coastal management policies is in order to ensure a healthy beach and dune environment for both sea turtles and people well into the future.