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Lights on Gulf Drive still an obstacle for hatchlings

By Mark Young, Islander Reporter

Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch & Shorebird Monitoring executive director Suzi Fox, left, and section coordinator Lee Zerkel remove stakes marking a loggerhead nest at the BeachHouse Restaurant, 200 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach. The sea turtles hatched Aug. 5. Islander Photo: Mark Young

Against the odds, a loggerhead nest hatched Aug. 5 at the south end of the BeachHouse Restaurant, 200 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach.

Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch & Shorebird Monitoring volunteers weren’t sure if the sea turtle nest survived Tropical Storm Debby’s fury at the end of June.

Storm surge sent Gulf of Mexico waters over the nest, taking out location markers put there by volunteers, which made it impossible to relocate the nest.

That is until about 11:30 p.m. Aug. 5, when loggerhead hatchlings broke the surface of the sand. Instead of heading toward the water, however, they scrambled toward Gulf Drive.

AMITW blames ongoing lighting issues on Gulf Drive as the reason for the disorientation.

Sea turtles are guided by their instincts toward the natural sparkle on the Gulf waters after nesting and on hatching from the nest, but manmade lights pose a distraction.

According to AMITW section coordinator Lee Zerkel, excavation of the nest revealed 83 hatched eggs. One dead hatchling was found in the nest and eight were rescued from a stormwater drain near the restaurant on Gulf Drive.

“We don’t know what happened to the rest of them,” said Zerkel. “There was a woman walking the beach that night, who reported the nest had hatched and all the turtles were heading the wrong way.”

The good news is that no other dead hatchlings were found and, as can happen during a disorientation event, no turtles were found smashed on the road.

Staff at the BeachHouse rescued seven hatchlings from the drain following the disorientation and AMITW volunteers later found the eighth in the same drain.

AMITW executive director Suzi Fox blamed street and business lighting on Gulf Drive as the primary culprit for disorientations such as the one that occurred Aug. 5.

“It’s mostly the streetlights that are the problem, and Florida Power & Light should do something about it,” said Fox.

Fox also blamed Oma’s Pizza, across from the BeachHouse Restaurant, for not doing enough to curb its nighttime lighting. She said the BeachHouse does a good job staying in compliance during nesting season.

“But they did want us to take the stakes down after the tropical storm, insisting that the nest was destroyed,” said Fox, who refused to do so.

The nest was located just west of the site of a proposed dune and parking lot. Bradenton Beach commissioners entered into an agreement with the restaurant to move forward with that project in May.

The parking lot project is being challenged in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court by three Bradenton Beach residents, who claim the project violates the city’s comprehensive plan.

Fox objects to the project, and previously informed commissioners the development site is in turtle nesting habitat.

City attorney Ricinda Perry countered Fox’s claims, saying there is no evidence turtles had been nesting in the area and claims the beach is too hard for nesting in that area.

Just days after a contentious city commission meeting, a turtle crawled into the development area, dug a nest and laid her eggs.

Zerkel said it wasn’t the only one.

“A nest hatched a week before this one on the north side of the BeachHouse,” she said. “The nest was missed by our walkers because she had crawled all the way on top of that 5-foot dune to lay her eggs.”

Zerkel said that nest suffered mass casualties from disorientation.

“This section of Gulf Drive is a problem area on the island with lighting causing disorientation,” said Fox. “The woman who saw the nest hatch told us she tried to guide the hatchlings to the sea, but it didn’t matter. You can put a turtle in the water, but it will crawl right back out if it sees that kind of light.”

AMITW is hopeful that the BeachHouse hatchlings either found their way to the Gulf or perhaps even made it all the way across the road and down the street to Sarasota Bay — if that’s the direction they headed.

“But I’m not holding my breath,” said Fox. “We have about 50 hatchlings that are unaccounted for, and I’m not holding out a lot of hope for them.”

Fox said the good news is that no one should say never when it comes to a nest that is presumed destroyed.

“We still have 60 other nests that are presumed lost that we hope to see hatch,” she said. “And the nests we relocated to Coquina Beach after the storm are beginning to hatch, so it’s still a great year for nesting.”

And nesting continues, Fox said, although the number of females coming ashore to lay eggs is dwindling, as hatching begins in earnest.

Fox said there is no excuse to not comply with lighting regulations during nesting season. AMITW is considering using signs to place on businesses and homes to indicate they are not in compliance of regulations.

“The solution to end disorientation events is simple,” said Fox. “Everyone just needs to do what they are supposed to do. FP&L needs to take care of these streetlights, and local businesses need to come into compliance.”

The disorientation events on Gulf Drive have been documented and submitted to the city of Bradenton Beach by AMITW.

Fox is hopeful that code enforcement officers will get involved and cite business owners who fail to comply with lighting regulations.

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