Launch of Free the Beach Campaign

Spring 2001 Issue Articles:

* Turtle Heroes: 4-H Club Sea Turtle Project and Contest
* Launch of Free the Beach Campaign

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Launch of Free the Beach Campaign

By Gary Appelson

Turtle crawl track along a “waffle” revetment. Photo by Barbara Schroeder

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation has initiated a new campaign to address the threats to Florida’s nesting sea turtles posed by coastal development, construction of sea walls, and endless beach nourishment projects that are degrading Florida’s coastline. CCC’s new initiative, dubbed the “Free the Beach Campaign” (FTBC), seeks to eliminate or reduce the continued destruction of Florida’s remaining coastal habitat by addressing the root causes—poorly designed coastal management policies and ineffective enforcement of existing laws and regulations.

The basic strategy of the FTBC is to utilize a number of issues with high public interest to raise awareness about the problems associated with Florida’s coastal management policies. The awareness generated will be molded into broad public and institutional support for specific changes. Key regulatory agency personnel and legislators will be presented with a mandate for change, and CCC will work with these government entities to bring about meaningful reforms.

Loggerheads, green turtles and leatherbacks have been nesting on Florida beaches in increasing numbers over the past decade. Nest production in Florida now accounts for more than 90% of all the sea turtle nesting in the continental United States. While the positive trend in nesting is certainly good news, it is probably the result of conservation measures implemented decades ago. CCC’s concern is that Florida’s current coastal management policies have the potential to undermine the past 20 years of progress in recovering U.S. sea turtle populations. Coastal construction guidelines, theoretically designed to protect the beach and dune system, are still allowing new construction right up to the dune line—even on eroding beaches. State and county lighting regulations, designed to protect nesting sea turtles and hatchlings from disorienting artificial lights, routinely go unenforced. Each year, regulations controlling sea wall construction are weakened, resulting in more walls on the beach. Meanwhile, massive dredge and fill projects (beach nourishment) are being planned with little regard for their impacts on turtle nesting and near shore habitats. The cumulative impacts of all these activities could be devastating to Florida’s beaches and sea turtles—unless the policies are changed.

STSL launched its new campaign by meeting with David Struhs, Secretary of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and Dr. Al Devereaux, Chief of DEP’s Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems. FDEP is responsible for coastal construction permitting and beach management in Florida. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how current policies will affect Florida’s beaches, including the sea turtles that depend on them, decades into the future. CCC, with the help of coastal advisor Dr. Stephen Leatherman, presented its concerns that the rate of coastal development, combined with increasing erosion and sea level rise, could soon result in the entire coast being lined with sea walls and artificially maintained beaches. Encouragingly, FDEP’s senior regulators agreed that there was plenty of room to improve how Florida manages its beaches.

First, the FTBC will involve a wide range of stakeholders who are interested in changing Florida’s coastal management policies to better protect beaches for people, sea turtles, and the general marine environment. STSL is already gathering input from other organizations involved in beach and marine protection issues. Prominent coastal engineers and marine scientists are being consulted and will be advising CCC during the FTBC. A case for statutory and regulatory reform will be presented through a Coastal Status Report and related educational materials.

Over half of Florida’s coastline is experiencing erosion, and almost one-third is classified as “critically eroding.” As was reported in the last Velador, two main engineering tactics are employed to combat this erosion: coastal armoring and beach nourishment. Both have serious negative consequences to sea turtles. It’s not hard to foresee that as sea walls continue to be built, depriving turtles of their nesting habitat, sooner or later armoring will have a measurable impact on the nesting population. Yet the state continues to overlook the cumulative impacts of additional armoring. Each new armoring permit request is reviewed independently, with no consideration of how an increasingly walled-in beach will affect turtle nesting. There is an assumption by state regulators that nesting turtles will simply move down the beach to unarmored sections, but on many stretches of Florida’s coast, the unarmored sections are getting harder to find. The FTBC seeks to strengthen armoring laws that do little to limit this destructive activity.

While adding sand to an eroding beach sounds far less harmful to sea turtles than building sea walls, the fact is these massive dredge and fill projects can have devastating impacts on sea turtles and near shore habitats. Currently, the single most important parameter used by the Corps of Engineers in designing a beach nourishment project is economics. Nourished beaches are engineered to be square, flat and wide—hardly ideal for sea turtles. Furthermore, sand placement off shore has the potential to bury important turtle and fish feeding grounds. According to state officials, however, such a design makes it easier for dredging companies to calculate how much sand they have pumped. While sand quality is supposed to be closely monitored, enforcement of any sort of standard is seemingly non-existent. Thus, environmental parameters play only minor roles in the nourishment process. And despite the ever increasing number of nourishment projects in Florida, the ever decreasing availability of sand, and the need to re-nourish many beaches every five years or less, cumulative impacts to sea turtles and other marine life are ignored! Few Floridians are aware of the tremendous long-term economic and environmental costs of these projects. The FTBC will get the word out and demand that environmental parameters be major components of Florida’s beach building projects.

The FTBC is just getting underway. Senior Florida regulators have been informed about the purpose of the campaign, and CCC is assembling diverse stakeholders who will support better management of Florida beaches. Public awareness about the problems with current coastal policies will be raised through the press and by distributing informative reports. Gradually, the campaign will build a case for meaningful policy change and work with decision-makers to implement specific revisions in how Florida manages its coastline. Members of CCC will be updated on the campaign’s progress through future Velador issues. In the meantime, if you want more information about the campaign, call CCC Advocacy Coordinator Gary Appelson at (352) 373-6441 or via e-mail at