Tens of Thousands of Florida’s Sea Turtle Hatchlings Lost to Hurricane Floyd

Fall 1999 Issue Articles:

* Tens of Thousands of Florida’s Sea Turtle Hatchlings Lost to Hurricane Floyd

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Tens of Thousands of Florida’s Sea Turtle Hatchlings Lost to Hurricane Floyd

By Gary Appelson, Policy Coordinator

The high winds and surf caused by Hurricane Floyd’s brush with Florida’s east coast in September washed out thousands of sea turtle nests in and around the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, resulting in the deaths of as many as 50,000 to 100,000 hatchling sea turtles, according to state sea turtle specialists.

“A lot of turtle nests are gone,” said Dr. Blair Witherington, a biologist with the state’s Marine Research Institute in Melbourne Beach. “After Floyd passed, I walked part of the beach in the refuge and saw the remains of a lot of eggs and hatchlings that had been washed out of nests.”

Hatchlings are often washed ashore by the strong winds, waves and currents caused by a hurricane. Many nests are also flooded or washed away by the high surf and erosion.

From June to August each year, the beaches in and around the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge host thousands of nesting loggerhead and green sea turtles. The refuge is the site of the largest nesting congregation of threatened loggerhead sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere and is the single most important nesting site in the continental U.S. for endangered green turtles. This year more than 21,000 loggerhead nests were counted in the refuge, and about 85% of those nests had hatched before Hurricane Floyd began its march along Florida’s east coast. That left about 3,000 sea turtle nests vulnerable to Floyd’s wrath. Each sea turtle nest can contain more than 100 eggs.

Witherington said the single most important factor contributing to which nests survived Hurricane Floyd and which didn’t was the placement of nests on the beach.

“Many of those nests that were deposited high up near the dunes will survive,” he said. “Those that were lower were washed out or flooded and won’t survive.”

Witherington makes this distinction because the best location for sea turtles to nest to keep their eggs safe from storms — high up on the beach near the dunes — is also where many beach side residents want to build sea walls to protect their property from beach erosion.

Coastal Armoring

Gary Appelson, advocacy coordinator for the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, said this sets up a conflict between humans and endangered sea turtles.

“When people build homes on Florida’s beaches, they are taking a tremendous risk of losing their property to erosion and strong storms,” Appelson said. “Unfortunately, many of these people, instead of building or buying homes well back from the beach, attempt to hold back the ocean by building sea walls on the very habitat that hatchling sea turtles need to survive large storms like Floyd. Sea turtles become penned between the ocean and sea walls, and the results are usually disastrous for sea turtles.”

Sea walls prevent turtles from nesting by destroying nesting habitat and also contribute to further beach erosion, causing beach loss for people as well as turtles. Beach erosion often puts coastal counties and the state in the difficult position of having to protect private property while also complying with the rules and regulations designed to protect sea turtles and their habitats. This conflict is evident in Indian River County on Florida’s east coast.

As a direct result of a legal challenge by CCC to prevent the illegal construction of sea walls in Indian River County, the county is now having to develop the state’s first Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) designed to reconcile the needs of beachfront property owners to protect their homes from natural beach erosion with the short- and long- term protection of sea turtles and their nesting habitat. An agreement with the county, as part of the legal settlement, prohibited it from authorizing any more sea wall construction or beach scraping (taking sand from below the high tide line and depositing it in front of sea walls and eroded dunes) without prior state approval and compliance with turtle protection laws.

During hurricane Floyd many coastal areas in the county lost in excess of four feet of vertical beach profile, though in the days following the hurricane, ocean currents deposited much of this sand back onto the beach. After Floyd, property owners were revving the bulldozers, threatening to move sand around without waiting for permits, irrespective of any turtle nests that might have been in a bulldozer’s path. CCC carefully monitored the situation and was in close contact with county and state officials. If property owners or the county acted illegally or if sea turtle nests were destroyed the entire HCP process could be voided.

Much to credit of government officials, they responded quickly. A week after Floyd, a team from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s turtle experts from the Bureau of Protected Species, the USFWS, and the US Army Corps of Engineers arrived in Indian River County. They made sure that all turtle protection laws and beach scraping permitting procedures were closely adhered to. Consequently the HCP process is still on track.

Appelson said, “If done properly, the development of the Habitat Conservation Plan will ultimately be in the best interests of the county, the state, and sea turtles. Additionally, Florida must do more to halt the proliferation of often unnecessary sea walls along Florida’s coastlines.”

The hurricane underscores the need to protect as much nesting habitat as possible from development. Only because Hurricane Floyd arrived near the end of sea turtle nesting season were the deaths of tens of thousands of additional hatchlings prevented.

Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge

The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1989 to help resolve some of the conflicts between turtles and people through the purchase of property from willing sellers that now preserves prime nesting habitat for the turtles. Unfortunately, due to a lack of funding, mainly from the federal government, not all of the parcels that have been designated for purchase have been saved.

Even now Congress is poised to deal a crippling blow to current Carr Refuge land acquisition efforts by stripping nearly $3 million in funding from the 2000 Federal Budget.

“The loss of this funding would be a great setback,” said Appelson. “Development is occurring so quickly in and around the Refuge that we are in a race against time to buy and preserve critical sea turtle nesting habitat.”