Policy Initiatives: Coastal Initiative: 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.

In the never-ending attempt to combat erosion, many coastal property owners and local governments are employing a variety of engineering tactics. The Sea Turtle Conservancy 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,” the Sea Turtle Conservancy can sometimes legally intervene to stop inappropriate projects or have them modified to minimize impacts to sea turtles and their habitats. STC is particularly diligent in monitoring applications to build sea walls or to conduct beach dredging (nourishment) projects. The following are summaries of Sea Turtle Conservancy’s 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, STC 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, STC 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 STC 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. STC 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.

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.

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, STC will continue to monitor and comment on these two dredging projects. STC 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.

The non-profit Sea Turtle Conservancy, formally known as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, is the oldest and most accomplished sea turtle organization in the world. Since its founding in 1959, the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s work has greatly improved the survival outlook for several species of sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy has as its mission the protection of sea turtles and the habitats upon which they depend.