Beach restrictions in effect as turtle season commences

It’s that time of year again. A time when hope springs eternal. A time for renewal. A time when a new season is upon us – Turtle Season.

The season began March 1, but doesn’t kick into high gear until May 1 and doesn’t wind down until the end of October.

During that time, a whole raft of legal restrictions and common sense practices go into effect to protect threatened and endangered sea turtles in a county with the largest concentration of nesting sites in the world – in a state that is home to 90 percent of nests in the continental United States.

“We may see a few leatherbacks as early as March, and some loggerheads nesting by mid-April,” said Dave Cheney, media coordinator for the Indialantic-based Sea Turtle Preservation Society. “But the peak of loggerhead nesting runs from late May to early June. The green turtles usually nest from June to late August.”

Restrictions impact construction projects east of A1A that come close to the dunes where turtles nest.

Brevard County Natural Resources Management department does not approve building permits for structures on the dunes.

“Because the county coastal construction ordinance disallows most structures east of our coastal setback line this usually means that dune crossover permits are on hold and dune restoration or planting projects also have to wait,” said Darcie McGee, of Environmental Resources Management. “The exception would be if a state or federal agency issued a permit. For instance, you may see Brevard County conducting sand placement and revegetation after March 1. However, the activity is permitted and includes marine turtle protective measures like turtle nesting monitoring.”

For a few years, turtle nesting season delayed installation of a new gate to allow easier entrance for emergency vehicles onto Melbourne Beach at the end of Ocean Avenue. This year, the project finally got completed – barely – before the March 1 cut-off date.

Many of the restrictions have to do with lighting along or near the beachfront. Every beachside community, including Melbourne Beach, Indian Harbour Beach, Satellite Beach and Indialantic have ordinances that require light control.

“At night on a natural coast, the reflection of the moon and stars make the ocean the brightest part of the beach. Hatchlings use this light to navigate towards the ocean. Both sea turtle hatchlings and adults are easily disoriented by artificial lighting and will head towards lights on beach homes or properties if they appear brighter than the glow of the ocean horizon,” said Sarah Shellabarger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Laws restrict or prohibit floodlights and other illumination aimed at the beach; low intensity lighting for buildings and public property is required, along with hoods or shields. In addition, shade screens, tinted windows or blackout draperies are mandated reduce the glare in buildings facing the ocean, especially after 9 p.m.

“There are many alternatives that can be implemented so lights are not seen from the beach,” McGee said. “When it comes to code enforcement, we aim for compliance first and give time and guidance for the violation to be remedied. In the event that does not happen, we send the case to the Special Magistrate who will hear the evidence and assign the penalty. The ordinances list fines and jail as potential penalties. However, no one has been sentenced to jail time in my 13 years here.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report that the contiguous beaches from Brevard to Palm Beach counties are the most important loggerhead nesting sites in the Western Hemisphere. Adult female sea turtles can come from as far as Africa to breed and nest on Florida beaches. These beaches typically see 15,000 nesting loggerheads in a year. Overall, Florida can expect 40,000 to 60,000 sea turtle nests by season’s end. The turtles, which have existed since prehistoric times, lay 80 to 110 eggs in nests they dig in the sand.

“Females can lay up to seven nests per season about two weeks apart, but they only nest every two to six years depending on the species,” Shellabarger said. “Once deposited, incubation lasts for approximately two months.”

That’s a lot of eggs, but Cheney says only one in 1,000 grow to adulthood. Sea turtles range in size from the 75-100 pound Kemp’s Ridley to the 1,300 pound, 8-foot-long leatherback. Most sea turtles grow and mature slowly, with life-spans of 70-80 years.

Cheney said going by the numbers, the restrictions have helped. The number of green turtle nests rose last year. Once considered endangered, they have now improved to the threatened category. That said, Cheney added you cannot look at a single year, but have to consider five- and 10-year trends.

Shellabarger said that in spite of hurricanes and other stormy weather, there was “a significant increase in nests on DEP’s Florida Coastal Office-monitored beaches in 2016 in comparison to the prior year. The total number of hatchlings recorded on these beaches was 44,831.”

Turtle-friendly tips from DEP include:

Never stop a turtle hatchling or adult that is returning to the ocean. Not only can interference tire them and increase mortality, the journey from nest to water may be part of the process to learn the location of their home beach so they can return to nest in the future.

Keep the beach clear. Do not litter or leave behind beach equipment. Demolish sandcastles and fill in holes. Consider cleaning up litter spotted around you.

Report sightings of nesting turtles to 800-404-FWCC. Workers and volunteers will mark off the nest area to help prevent inadvertent damage.

For more information, visit www.seaturtlespacecoast.org or call 321-676-1701.

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