A 2012 turtle nest on Anna Maria Island is marked and covered with wire to prevent animal predators from robbing the eggs. Islander File Photo
It’s tough being a newborn sea turtle.
While hatchlings battle with more visible light on the beaches, officials battle state permit conditions, both a result of beach renourishment.
Suzi Fox, executive director of the Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring, said she contacted an official at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission the first week of August due to a high number of hatchling disorientations, and the possibility of more miscues as the hatching rate increases.
“I noticed that they are up. They spiked, and we have a bigger problem than I thought. I estimate between 100 and 150 nests, big numbers, could be affected by lights,” Fox said.
Fox said she first alerted Charlie Hunsicker, director of the parks and natural resource department for Manatee County, which helps fund the AMITW monitoring program.
“When I see that I can’t fix something with one call, I contact the FWC,” said Fox.
The FWC, which oversees and collects the AMITW data, offered Fox guidance.
She said there are three main contributors to this year’s lighting problems, which are exacerbated by higher sands from the spring beach renourishment project. The project pumped sandy spoil on the beach and heavy equipment sculpted the sands, adding 3-5 feet of depth and a much wider beach.
The biggest problem is streetlights. The higher beach makes the streetlights more visible, and Fox said she planned to appeal to Florida Power and Light, Manatee County and the island city governments to place shields on the streetlights.
Beachside rental properties are second on Fox’s dangerous lights list.
“Realtors or those hired by property owners to take money from renters are responsible for telling people what the local laws are. Renters don’t know, and if they’re just sticking a piece a paper in the rooms, it’s not working,” she said.
Fox said the biggest light problems are occurring between 75th and 50th streets in Holmes Beach.
The third problem on Fox’s list is increased sky glow.
“People in the middle of the island have been adding decorative lighting and more lights in general. The hatchlings coming out of nests in Anna Maria on the dark beaches are walking south, and they’ve never done that before. Not like this,” Fox said.
Fox said within the past year new lights have appeared lining Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach and outside the Walgreens in Holmes Beach. The biggest problems with sky glow are from up-lighting in the commercial areas of Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach and at the Benderson-owned plaza, Anna Maria Island Centre, in Holmes Beach. Anna Maria prohibits up-lighting, which are low fixtures, projected upward.
“So now we’ve added another job for the code enforcement officers. With Bridge Street, it’s not just the sky glow, you can actually see the rooftop lights” from the shoreline, she said.
New permit conditions
Fox said there are additional permit conditions following every beach renourishment project, but this year’s conditions are considerably more stringent and burdening island cities’ code enforcement departments and AMITW’s administrative work.
“The requirements in the permit conditions have changed 100 percent following renourishments. In past years, the requirements were, if lights were out of compliance, nobody did anything. The last renourishment was in 2010, but the requirements were nothing,” said Fox.
The permit conditions are beneficial for the sea turtles and hatchlings, by addressing lighting problems. But, Fox said monthly lighting surveys, along with additional paperwork and follow up in addition to AMITW’s regular FWC requirements, are becoming too burdensome.
AMITW monitors and reports the permit conditions to the county based on a contract that funds AMITW.
Conditions set forth in the FWC permit requirements must be met by the county to ensure future funding for renourishment projects.
Lighting is governed by local ordinances. The responsibility then lies with the island cities’ already overburdened code enforcement departments to bring lights into compliance.
However, the streetlights might fall out of the scope of the cities’ abilities, and into the county’s hands, Fox said.
“I told Charlie (Hunsicker), every code enforcement office on the island is overworked and overwhelmed with the requirements set in the permit conditions,” Fox said.
Fox plans to approach Hunsicker later in the month to request help from Manatee County to support the island code enforcement departments and perform the checks.
“This will affect the renourishment programs, past, present and future,” Fox said. “The cities are obligated to these extra checks.”
Mind your sea turtle manners
Sea turtles on Anna Maria Island are protected by local ordinances and state and federal law.
The island cities have local ordinances prohibiting lights that can be seen from the beach, including the use of flashlights on the beach at night.
“I don’t care what you find on the Internet, no flashlight is turtle-friendly. If you have to use one, click-on, then click-off,” said Suzi Fox, executive director of the Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring.
State laws prohibit taking, possessing, disturbing, mutilating, destroying, selling, transferring or harassing sea turtles, their nests or eggs.
Violating a local ordinance is a misdemeanor and can lead to fines. Under state law, violators can be imprisoned up to 60 days or fined up to $500, with an additional $100 for each egg destroyed or taken.
Sea turtles are federally protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Taking, harassing, harming, hunting or trapping sea turtles, their nests or eggs can lead to fines up to $100,000 and up to one year in prison.
According to Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer, anyone who observes someone violating a local or state law should report it to local law enforcement.
Violations also can be reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission by calling the wildlife hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC.