Active Year in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge

Fall 2000 Issue Articles:

* Active Year in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge
* Beach Nourishment Projects Must Consider Cumulative Impacts to Marine Life

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Active Year in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge

By Gary Appelson & Dan Evans

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) has been an active supporter of and advocate for Florida’s Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge (ACNWR) for well over a decade. CCC played a significant role in establishing the refuge in 1989 and continues to work at securing funds for land aquisition and management. Over the years, CCC has worked with Florida lawmakers to restrict coastal armoring in the area and to ensure that beach nourishment projects along Florida’s east coast do not adversely impact the ACNWR. The refuge is also at the center of many of CCC’s educational programs. This article is intended to highlight CCC’s ongoing initiatives that focus on the Archie Carr Refuge.

Importance of the ACNWR to Sea Turtles

The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1989, extends 21 miles along the east central coast of Florida and is an important nesting site for loggerhead, green and leatherback sea turtles. Photo by Earl Possardt

A review of the following statistics makes it clear why CCC directs a considerable portion of its efforts toward the ACNWR. Aside from being named in honor of CCC’s founding scientific director, Dr. Archie Carr, the refuge is quite simply one of the most important places in the world for sea turtle nesting. The refuge extends for 21 miles along the east central coast of Florida. Within the northern and southern boundaries of the ACNWR, more loggerhead nesting takes place than at any other beach in the Western Hemisphere, with nesting densities that eclipse 1,000 nests per mile. Green turtle nesting also occurs at the highest levels seen in the United States, and leatherbacks are now nesting there in growing numbers. The ACNWR is the only federal refuge established specifically to protect these threatened and endangered species. Florida beaches account for just over 90% of all sea turtle nesting in the United States. Though the Carr Refuge encompasses just a small fraction of the Florida coast, about 25% of all the nesting in Florida occurs in this 21-mile stretch. This year, over 19,160 loggerhead nests and over 2,800 green turtle nests were documented in the ACNWR! Graphs of nesting history in the ACNWR.

ACNWR Land Acquisition Funding Update

CCC is proud to report that the US Congress just allocated $2 million dollars for the ACNWR. The money will be used to buy undeveloped, private inholdings in the refuge that include critical nesting habitat. CCC worked tirelessly over the past two years to increase federal funding for land acquisition in the refuge. Our staff met with key members of Florida’s congressional delegation and with officials in the federal agencies that impact the wildlife refuge funding process. CCC’s efforts even included submitting testimony that was used in deliberations by Congressional budget committees. Given the need for additional land acquisition, CCC is already working to request similar funding for next year.

Along with the allocation to Archie Carr, Congress also appropriated $6 million for the purchase of substantial additions to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge (PINWR). This is significant for the Carr Refuge, because the targeted parcels include a section of the barrier island that, once acquired, will join the two refuges. The PINWR was the first federal refuge in the United States and is located within and along the shores of the Indian River Lagoon–the inland waterway separating the coastal barrier island from the mainland. Because of their proximity, the two refuges are now managed jointly.

The new addition to PINWR will serve multiple purposes. It will provide a buffer for the bird rookeries on Pelican Island, and it will provide a safe-haven for juvenile green turtles that forage in the lagoon. Bringing the land into public

Ron Hight (USFWS), Indian River County Commissioner Fran Adams, Gary Appelson (CCC) and Representative Dave Weldon pose next to the mock check presented to the USFWS.Photo Courtesy of Ryan Morrison

ownership will halt the encroaching development and limit the impacts of boat traffic. The purchase will also protect the quality and darkness of nesting beaches at ACNWR by limiting development on that area of the coast.

On November 3, CCC joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and federal officials in announcing the recent appropriations to the Archie Carr and Pelican Island Refuges. The event was organized to recognize and thank the many “partners” who helped make this Congessional appropriation possible. Speaking first at the event, CCC Advocacy Coordinator Gary Appelson commended all the partners for their work in making the acquisitions possible.

“Hopefully this represents a renewed effort by the Federal government to complete the Archie Carr Refuge and to place a higher priority on both refuges within the refuge system” Appelson stated. CCC also made it a point to thank Congressman Dave Weldon, who represents the area in the U.S. House of Representatives and worked hard to secure the appropriations for both refuges. Representative Weldon then presented a large mock check for $8 million to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

CCC has also been working to secure more funding for management at ACNWR. The last issue of the Velador reported on the severe shortfall in funding for the operation and management of both of these refuges and detailed some of the backlogged priority management needs. Due in part to CCC’s efforts in this area, the USFWS was recently able to announce a major increase in management funding. Three new staff positions, including a biologist and public-use ranger, will be added to the ACNWR/PINWR complex. Discretionary funds will also be available to fulfill management goals.

Educational efforts in the ACNWR

A female loggerhead returns to the water after depositing her nest on the shore of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Dr. Llewellyn Ehrhart

Since the establishment of the Carr Refuge, CCC has led efforts to raise local, state, national, and even international awareness about the ACNWR. These efforts have included publications, presentations, press coverage, TV documentaries, videos and Internet-based education programs. Recently, CCC was given the priveledge of being named as the only entity, other then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service itself, authorized to conduct guided walks to see a nesting turtles in the Archie Carr Refuge. Each summer, CCC conducts intimate, highly educational walks that are targeted especially to educators and students. Through these walks, CCC is inspiring strong support for the refuge and creating future naturalists and sea turtle advocates. The educators who participate in the walks also become ambassadors for the refuge, spreading their knowledge and support to countless children.

Dr. Llew Ehrhart (UCF), Dottie Klugel (Smithsonian), David Godfrey (CCC) and Paul Tritaik (USFWS) answer questions posed by students from all over the U.S. during a live broadcast.Photo by Dan Evans

In September, through a unique partnership with the Smithsonian Institute and Ball State University, CCC was invited to co-host a live “electronic field trip” to the Carr Refuge that reached millions of students around the country.

CCC is now working to establish a permanent educational presence and satellite office in the Archie Carr Refuge. Two years ago, the Richard King Mellon Foundation purchased a beachfront parcel of land within the boundaries of the ACNWR in south Brevard County. The parcel was donated to Brevard County for the purpose of building and operating a public learning center to raise awareness about the unique and fragile nature of barrier islands. Last year, Brevard County approached CCC about becoming a partner in the development and operation of educational displays and programs at the Center, in part because of our knowledge in sea turtle research and conservation and because of our long-term commitment to establishing and promoting the Carr Refuge. The County looked to CCC for assistance in designing a portion of the exhibits for the center, which will accurately tell the story of Archie Carr, sea turtles and the global significance of Brevard=s south beaches to sea turtles. As part of the partnership, CCC will also have access to office space at the Center to house a full-time educational coordinator.

CCC enthusiastically accepted the offer to become a partner in the facility, which will be called the Barrier Island Ecosystem Center. CCC secured grant funding from the Florida Department of Consumer Affairs to help design the sea turtle displays in the center. CCC is now working with an exhibit design studio to develop final artwork, text and renderings for the exhibit. CCC will then use these to secure foundation and corporate support for the actual construction. As currently scheduled, the Center will open by the summer of 2002.

New Threats to the Carr Refuge

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), almost half of the state’s 825 miles of beaches are experiencing erosion. Nearly 300 miles of beaches are “experiencing critical erosion, a level of erosion that threatens development, recreational, cultural, or environmental interests.” Unfortunately, many of these erosion-prone beaches are found within and adjacent to the Archie Carr Refuge.

Sea turtle nesting habitat is particularly vulnerable to impacts caused by coastal armoring.

In the never-ending attempt to combat erosion, many coastal property owners and local governments are employing a variety of engineering tactics (See Beach Nourishment Projects Must Consider Cumulative Impacts to Marine Life). CCC constantly monitors plans for these projects, especially those occurring near the ACNWR, and intervenes when appropriate. Since many of these projects can actually kill or disturb sea turtles, thereby causing a “take,” CCC can sometimes legally intervene to stop inappropriate projects or have them modified to minimize impacts to sea turtles and their habitats. CCC is particularly diligent in monitoring applications to build sea walls or to conduct beach dredging (nourishment) projects. The following are summaries of CCC’s recent involvement in projects that pose a threat to the Archie Carr Refuge.

The Breakers

As coastal development continues to crowd the coastline, the construction of sea walls, once considered a last resort tactic to save homes, is being relied upon more and more in Florida. Last March, the Breakers Condominium Association, located in Brevard County, Florida, just north of the ACNWR, applied for a state permit to build a one-third-mile-long sea wall. Because of the condo’s close proximity to the refuge, and the negative impacts of sea walls on adjacent coastline, CCC considered the project to be a major threat to the refuge and a terrible precedent for the area.

Many local property owners south of the Breakers complex, after learning about the project, also became concerned that the sea wall would increase erosion down the beach–threatening their homes and the quality of the Carr Refuge. After rallying local opposition to the project, CCC and its supporters in the area helped flood DEP with letters and petitions. In April, the state’s Bureau of Protected Species Management (BPSM), which regulates many activities that impact sea turtles, sent a letter to DEP stating that it was “concerned about the placement of this seawall due to the high density of marine turtle nests that occur in the area, more than 600 loggerhead nests per km per year.” In July, DEP determined that most of the condo was not even threatened by erosion and that much of the complex was, therefore, not eligible for a sea wall. Last month, the Breakers Condominium withdrew its permit application citing strong public opposition and the state’s refusal to permit the entire length of the wall as requested. Thus, efforts by CCC and local citizens helped stop this potentially disastrous project–at least for now.

Beach Dredging Projects

Large-scale beach dredging projects (also referred to as beach nourishment) can have numerous adverse impacts on sea turtles, their foraging grounds and nesting habitats. Newly engineered beaches must be suitable for nesting turtles, and everything from the color and thickness of sand to the slope of the beach can impact sea turtle survival. The dredging and dumping of sand can also bury or degrade sea grass beds and reefs located just off shore. CCC is working hard to raise awareness about these potential threats in an effort to make sure that all such projects are designed to minimize impacts to sea turtles.

This worm rock reef system off the coast of Indian River County would be buried by a proposed dredging and beach renourishment project. These reefs are critically important habitat to the most genetically diverse juvenile green turtle population in the Atlantic basin. Photo Courtesy of Vero Beach Reefs

The State of Florida, in cooperation with local governments and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is currently proposing six major beach nourishment projects along its Atlantic coast. As these projects are currently designed, the placement of sand onto the shore and adjacent areas will bury over 100 acres of unique nearshore reefs. The reefs occurring in this area of Florida’s East Coast are known as worm-rock reefs, and they run parallel to much of the shore in this area. The reefs are created by tube-building Sabellariid sea worms. The specialized habitats created by the worm-rock reefs are used by over 500 marine species, including endangered sea turtles. Consequently, the reefs are federally designated as Essential Fish Habitats, and within that ranking they are further classified as U.S. Habitat Areas of Particular Concern, warranting the highest level of protection by Federal fish managers.

Two of these large nourishment projects are proposed for Brevard and Indian River Counties. Both will directly impact the Archie Carr Refuge. Brevard County has just begun its $39 million, 12.8 mile long dredging project. The 3.4-mile southern section of this project ends just north of the northern edge of the ACNWR. Worm-rock reefs run parallel to the shore in portions of this project area. At present, this section of the project is on hold, likely due to recent attention being focused on the environmental impacts of these dredging projects. A similar project being proposed by Indian River County would extend for 8.3 miles along the coast and bury 56 acres of nearshore worm-rock reefs that parallel much of the project area. The northern sections of this project include the southern beaches of the ACNWR and the adjacent nearshore reefs.

Loggerhead sea turtles are just one of many species of marine animals that depend upon the worm rock reef system off the coast of Brevard and Indian River Counties.Photo Courtesy of Vero Beach Reefs

Because of potential adverse impacts, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is now being required by the Army Corps of Engineers before the Indian River County project can proceed. The EIS should provide a full biological assessment of the project’s impacts and examine other alternatives. Each of these alternatives must be designed to minimize or eliminate environmental impacts.

While placing sand on an eroding beach is often a preferred alternative to options such as coastal armoring or complete loss of a nesting beach, CCC will continue to monitor and comment on these two dredging projects. CCC efforts are aimed at ensuring that sand placement and dredging are done in a manner that minimizes negative impacts to marine turtles and other coastal resources.

Clearly, CCC is playing a major role in the protection of the Archie Carr Refuge. CCC’s committment to the refuge can be seen in our efforts to increase funding for land acquisition and management; our numerous educational programs focusing on the refuge; and our stalwart watch-dogging of issues that affect the ACNWR. In the coming year, CCC’s commitment will be strengthened and expanded through the establishment of a satellite office in the refuge. Through these actions, CCC and its members are acting as true friends of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge –a role we will continue to fill.