The US Fish and Wildlife Service is watching and waiting to see if Franklin County will enforce its turtle protection ordinance.
On Thursday, Aug. 15, USFW biologist Lisa Lehnhoff addressed about 20 St. George Islanders when the civic club met on the subject of sea turtles and lighting. All sea turtles are on the federal list of threatened species. Both adult turtles coming ashore to nest and hatchlings returning to the sea can be disoriented by artificial lights.
Lehnhoff told the group Franklin County passed the Panhandle’s first ordinance protecting sea turtles in 1997.
Over the last six months, the county received two letters from USFW warning that this ordinance is not being properly enforced. The second letter included a list of 140 residences with lighting that appears to be out of compliance with the county law.
Lehnhoff said USFW is now asking the sheriff’s office to enforce the county ordinance. If that doesn’t work, she said, USFW plans to enforce the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on St. George Island.
County law requires that both interior and exterior light be completely shielded so that neither the bulb nor its reflection can be seen by nesting sea turtles and hatchlings. The county is also supposed to see that lighting fixtures and window treatments are compliant for all construction that occurs seaward of the Coastal Construction Control Line.
Violations of the county ordinance are punishable as misdemeanors with a fine of up to $500 a day and up to 60 days in the county jail.
By contrast, the ESA doesn’t deal with lighting directly, but does punish violators who harm endangered species such as sea turtles in any way. Each organism harmed is considered a violation. If 30 turtle hatchlings are disoriented and die as a result, that is 30 violations of the ESA. Each violation carries a civil penalty of up to $500 a day, not to exceed $12,000, and a criminal penalty of up to $50,000 and one year in federal prison per infraction.
Lehnhoff said USFW has begun monitoring turtle nests on the island using four-wheelers and photographing noncompliant structures.
She said the county’s current ordinance is inadequate and USFW would like to see stronger controls in place. Escambia County now has an ordinance that specifies the wavelength of light that can be used in coastal structures.
“My dream is to see the whole island dark,” said Lehnhoff. She said it is possible to have plenty of light for safety using proper fixtures.
Lehnhoff said USFW cannot enforce the county’s ordinance, but can and will enforce ESA. She said her agency also has the power hold up federal funding for projects in areas where endangered species protection is an issue. She said she was unsure if this included RESTORE Act funding.
Most members of the audience said they were in agreement with Lehnhoff. Several suggested Franklin County pass a “Dark Skies” ordinance limiting light pollution everywhere in the county.
“Many visitors are misinformed about turtles and lighting,” said Dani Raye, a volunteer at Lighthouse Park.
Adele Colston, also a park volunteer, said the island visitor center used to distribute free red filters for flashlights but ran out some time ago. Lehnhoff told her red plastic filters used for theatrical lighting could be cut to size and used for flashlights.
Lehnhoff said she and Karen Shudes, of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, are working with Collins Vacation Rentals and Resort Vacation Properties to bring rental houses into compliance. A spokesperson for St. George Island Vacation Properties said they addressed the problem soon after the USFW list was published.
Civic Club Secretary Eric Roberts said the club would invite Lehnhoff back for an update this winter.
A good nesting season
Right now is a good time to raise awareness about nesting sea turtles.
According to researchers at Florida's three national estuarine research reserves, this year's sea turtle nesting season is boasting the second highest nest count on record at the reserves. Sea turtle nesting season begins in early May and extends to Oct. 31.
A recent press release from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said “More than 1,800 biologists, interns and trained volunteers patrol Florida's 199 nesting beaches to identify, mark and monitor nests and evaluate nest productivity after the hatchlings emerge.”
Researchers at Florida’s three research reserves, in Naples, Apalachicola and Ponte Vedra Beach, gather evidence to track sea turtle populations and document the success of the nest outcomes.
At the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, 226 nests have been caged by the patrols on 12 miles of beaches and two additional nearby islands. While nests can be inundated by high tides and coastal storms, the most serious threat is eggs being dug up and consumed or otherwise obliterated by predators, so the cages provide a needed defense.
Young turtles have a small amount of energy that must take them to the water, which under natural conditions is the brightest spot on the nighttime beach. If they disorient and head the wrong way, they may starve to death before landing in the floating sargassum weeds which are their food source.”
“Take all personal belongings from the beach at the end of the day so no obstacles exist on the way to the water; flatten sand castles and fill in holes; pick up and properly dispose of litter on the beach, stay off the dunes and use the designated walkovers for crossing,” read the FWC press release.