At their Sept. 4 meeting, Extension Director Bill Mahan told commissioners that US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) is threatening island business and home owners with heavy fines if lights are not brought into compliance with the federal law.
Mahan said that, on August 23, he met with Kelly Roberts and Robin Trindell of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Lisa Lehnhoff with USFW to conduct a beach survey on St. George Island and discuss the county sea turtle lighting ordinance.
Mahan said two of six turtle nests that have hatched this year have become disoriented as a result of noncompliant lights. All three visiting wildlife officers told Mahan the county ordinance is not strong enough and is not being adequately enforced.
Mahan said, “One issue that was pointed out is that the county’s ordinance only covers homes and businesses built on lots along coastal construction line. The Endangered Species Act covers any light source that causes disorientation of sea turtles. During our walk there were bright lights all over the beach. The state people seemed understanding and want to work with us as best they can but USFW said if the county doesn’t do more, they’re going come in and enforce the Endangered Species Act which would trump everything and they said the fines would start at about $5,000.”
Commissioner Cheryl Sanders said, “The county was one of the first counties in the state of Florida to enact the turtle lighting ordinance. We were very proactive. I would like to see what suggestions the federal government thinks we need to do more than what we got.”
Chairperson Pinki Jackel said, “The retrofits on these lights are very expensive. Every time it looks like there’s funding to help homeowners with retrofits of the lighting, it turns out to not be the program that they’re told. Recently we were told that there was some sort of environmental grant or money available to homeowners and people got interested. It was going pay for local electricians and for the hardware and all and as it turned out it was not. It was a match. It could probably average $500-700 a house. There needs to be some handholding done on that to help folks get that done.”
Sanders said, “Let the federal government show us the money that they’re going to use to retrofit all of these things.”
In an interview after the meeting Bruce Hall a spokeswoman for Sea Turtles at Risk (STAR) disagreed. Hall has administered grant money for several lighting retrofit programs.
She said that, in the past STAR and USFW have asked people who receive funds to install light blocking window treatments as well and display turtle information in rental houses. Grant recipients also agreed to grant access to representatives of STAR or USFW for inspection purposes and inform one of the organizations if the property was sold.
She said that, under the grant program advertised in the Times last week, there were no such requirements because of the brief window of opportunity for obtaining funds.
Mahan said he had discussed the possibility of further outreach about sea turtles with the FWC and USFW representatives.
He told commissioners, “I guess the ordinance was adopted back in 1998 and it might be out of a lot of people’s minds.”
Jackel said, “I think the rental companies do a great job of letting people know. They provide turtle information in all their renter packages. I know the rental companies have let the owners know. I think the problem is the money for the expense of retrofitting.”
Commissioner Noah Lockley said, “I’ve been watching this thing for eight years. They fuss about them telling that every year but all they monitor them is while they in the ground. Once they hatch and hit the water they don’t put no device on them to follow them or nothing. They don’t know how many make it from there. The ones that do make it, they go down to Mexico and the people eat them. You ain’t spending all that money for lights and stuff. It’s hard times.”
In a telephone interview, Lehnhoff said there is an extensive program of offshore sea turtle monitoring using GPS technology. Both the University of Florida and Eglin Air Force Base participate in offshore turtle migration studies and, while no turtles have been tagged on St. George Island, 15 females that nest on Cape San Blas carry tracking devices. The animals are dubbed with names like Love Bug, Chaka Khan and Pocahontas. Information on the migration patterns of these and other turtles is available on the website for Seaturtle.org.
Lehnhoff said, based on current research, about one out 1,000 hatchlings reaches maturity.
Commissioner Smokey Parrish said, “I’d like to see you make contact with the property managers and make sure they are aware of what US Fish and Wildlife is saying because $5,000 fine for improper lighting is very steep not only for the people but for the owners over there. I think what you’re talking about going out there and doing some educational stuff is very appropriate to try and avoid that. Make sure they’re aware of the suggestions as far as trying to retrofit and make sure they’re aware of the consequences if we don’t address that.”
Jackel said, “I believe they’re important like all our other creatures and I think we need to do everything we can to protect them, within reason. I’m very proactive on that.”