Battle brewing between turtle rescuers, Florida’s wildlife commission

Staci-Lee Sherwood

(NEW YORK) -- Tensions are rising between turtle rescue organizations and the Florida Wildlife Commission that oversees their work -- so much so that the unpaid volunteers may soon be banned from helping to save the reptiles.

Every year between March and October, multiple species of sea turtles, mainly loggerheads, swim up to Florida's shores to lay their eggs. But once the hatchlings emerge, they face a multitude of obstacles, many of them human-made, and the majority of them in Broward County never make it to the ocean, local activists say.

To help, turtle rescue groups stake out the nests, deter residents and tourists from interfering and collect the just-hatched turtles into buckets to move them into the "splash zone," near the water, Richard WhiteCloud, founder and director of Sea Turtle Oversight Protection (STOP), told ABC News.

But the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has made clear it plans to stop permitted organizations in Broward County from continuing to help hatchlings find their way into the ocean.

Earlier this year, the FWC sent a letter to at least three of the four groups permitted to rescue sea turtles in Broward County, stating that their "human presence on the beach at night and during nesting and hatching season" is a disturbance and "endangers the health and safety of marine life." Two of the organizations had their number of permits, which cover 25 volunteers each, reduced.

In the letters, obtained by ABC News, the FWC states that the permits will soon be phased out, adding that the catch and release programs that started more than 10 years ago were never meant to be permanent and are no longer needed.

The absence of a permit will make the volunteers' presence on the beach illegal -- but the turtle hatchlings will die without them, the organizations say.

Survival is a struggle for hatchlings

The lights coming from condos and hotels on Broward County's crowded coastlines have proved to be a death sentence for the sea turtle hatchlings, rescuers said.

The FWC stated in its letters to the organizations that the adoption of city ordinances that address beachfront lighting was enough to rid the need of the volunteers. But just because the rules are in place doesn't mean people follow them, and the authorities certainly don't enforce them, Doug Young, chief operating officer of the South Florida Audubon Society, told ABC News.

Buildings have made improvements over the past five years to change the exterior lighting to make it sea turtle friendly -- the lights must be on the amber wavelength, low-wattage, shielded and low to the ground. But, the biggest problem now is the interior white lights, Young said.

One bright light within a 2- or 3-mile radius is enough to disturb dozens of nests, each filled with more than 100 eggs, Staci-lee Sherwood, founder and director of the Sea Turtle Awareness Rescue Stranding (STARS), told ABC News.

But the oceanfront lights aren't the only problem. The sky glow, an illuminated sky caused by inland city lights and low clouds, also disorient the turtles, said Jeanette Wyneken, a professor of biological sciences at Florida Atlantic University who has researched hatchlings.

There is a never-ending orange glow in the sky in populated cities such as Pompano Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Sherwood said. And there are no light ordinances for sky glow, according to the organizations.

Hatchlings emerge from the nest with an instinct to move away from tall, dark silhouettes and toward an open horizon, Wyneken said. Their reaction to seeing the photo pollution from the lights is similar to the "abnormal response" that attracts moths, mosquitos and June bugs to lights at night.

"It’s an abnormal response, but it’s one that happens when there's a concentrated light source," Wyneken said. "That kind of situation, when there are lights that are visible from the beach, can cause that light trapping response."

STOP has documented thousands of code complaints, which are ignored at both the municipal and state level, WhiteCloud alleged.

"Nothing happens," he added, while Sherwood claimed the commission "has no intention of enforcing laws."

And the human-made hazards don't stop there. On any given night, there could be 100 people out on the beach, WhiteCloud said, adding that they often are shooting fireworks, having barbecues while their kids are playing loudly or racing around on ATVs.

The increase in human activity makes it less likely that female turtles will nest on the shore and may cause her to shed her eggs in the ocean or nest in more vulnerable locations, according to the FWC, which pointed at the rescue organizations and told ABC News in a statement that there is the potential for more than 100 volunteers to be out surveying the beach nightly for up to six months during the hatching season.

"The FWC must weigh monitoring activities for the greater good of the species and is doing so by attempting to minimize all forms of disturbance on the beach at night," the statement read. "This includes reducing volunteers sitting near the many nests on Broward County beaches for extended periods of time while still providing the ability to respond to and rescue disoriented hatchlings."

WhiteCloud agreed that the potential for that many volunteers to go out at once was there, simply because of the number of people covered under each permit, but denied the FWC's claims. The groups coordinate, and there are typically no more than about 24 people covering 24 miles of Broward County coastline each night. Young and Sherwood each confirmed WhiteCloud's nightly estimate of volunteers.

No volunteers on the beach would spell problems for the hatchlings, Young said, especially since nature's obstacles make survival a struggle as well.

The hatchlings must overcome the risk of over-incubating under the sand due to the ever-increasing global temperatures from climate change, WhiteCloud said.

They also must make it to the ocean without the natural cues of the dark silhouette of a dune -- Florida's beaches are flat -- and get there before they get dehydrated or stuck in a tire track from a lifeguard truck or ATV or tangled in beach furniture left out overnight, he added.

While still on the beach, the hatchlings must avoid land predators such as ghost crabs, foxes, spotted skunks, coyotes, sea birds and, in some places such as Georgia and the Carolinas, feral pigs, Wyneken said. Then, once in the water, they have to avoid ocean predators such as mahi, squid and dolphin fish.

Researchers have found that 5% to 7% of hatchlings are picked off by predators before they make it to the water, Wyneken said. Once in the water, most are then taken by the aquatic predators within the first half-hour, she added.

Turtle habitats in Florida are dwindling as well, with less and less beach available for them to nest, Young said.

"Every year it gets worse," he said. "Their chances of survival start getting reduced just for the fact that many nests get washed out before they even get the chance to hatch."

And in 40 years, if ocean levels continue to rise, the nesting grounds in Florida will be underwater -- making it even more important to ensure the population now, WhiteCloud said.

Rescuers worked in tandem with the FWC for years, the organizations said

STOP was created in 2007 after several people witnessed a "mass disorientation" of several hundred turtles, in which "hardly any of them" made it to the ocean without being assisted, WhiteCloud said, adding that the group had a "great" relationship with the FWC up until two years ago.

WhiteCloud believes the relationship began to sour due to complaints the FWC received regarding the volunteers requesting that people on the beach turn off their flashlights. Some of them were shining flashlights on nests or on the turtles as the volunteers attempted to recover them. It is a felony in Florida to disturb or harass any marine turtle species or hatchling, and all sea turtle species are also protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Although the lighting ordinances ban flashlights on the beach, WhiteCloud said the FWC asked the group to stop the requests.

All of the volunteers undergo rigorous training annually using an FWC-approved workshop in both the classroom and on the beach, the organizations said.

STOP's program was so successful that they helped the FWC design its online database and helped the commission write its training program, WhiteCloud said.

In late March, the FWC denied approval of three of WhiteCloud's five permits, he said.

Meanwhile, the FWC told Young that one of his two permits would be revoked in 2022 and that by 2023 there may be no permits issued in Broward County, he said.

While Young said the Audubon Society has always worked "very closely" and "in tandem" with the FWC, Sherwood said that the "writing has been on the wall" for years.

"They have always wanted to get rid of this program from the beginning," Sherwood alleged, describing the FWC as "the single greatest threat to wildlife in the state of Florida."

Carol Lyn Parrish, public information officer for the FWC's south region, denied any ill will toward the organizations, which was characterized in a story that ran in the Sun Sentinel, the Fort Lauderdale-based newspaper that first reported the clash.

"The recent article released insinuated that the FWC was dismissive or unappreciative of sea turtle volunteer efforts and this couldn't be further from the truth," Parrish said. "The FWC appreciates the work of these volunteers as their help has been instrumental in the success of sea turtle conservation throughout the state."

There are currently more than 175 marine turtle permits in the state, but the permits issued in Broward County are the only ones that are undergoing change, Parrish said, citing "unique circumstances."

The FWC is "encouraging the groups to continue their community-based sea turtle conservation efforts by focusing on activities that protect both mother turtles coming to lay their eggs as well as hatchlings trying to make their way to open water," the statement read.

In a second statement to ABC News, the FWC said it had a "longstanding history of sea turtle conservation in Broward County" and has worked with state and local governments, the power company, its partners and the local community to address lighting issues.

"While the FWC is not the entity responsible for enforcing lighting ordinances, we have spent a great deal of time training local government staff on sea turtle appropriate lighting practices to assist with their enforcement efforts," the statement read.

Florida is a crucial location for turtle nesting

While there were once millions of loggerhead sea turtles swimming the world's seas, an estimated 36,000 to 67,000 nesting females are left, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which lists the species as vulnerable on its Red List of Threatened Species.

The beaches in Florida are the most important in the U.S. for sea turtle nests. Loggerhead, leatherback and green sea turtles are losing their habitat all over the world and are choosing the state to lay their eggs, Sherwood said.

"They’re coming here because they’re losing a lot of historical places that they used to nest," she said.

Up to 40% of loggerhead turtle nests in the world are laid in Florida, according to the FWC. In Broward County, 90% of the nesting turtles are loggerheads, Young said.

Although the FWC claims that the turtle programs in Florida have been successful, the state of Florida may not be seeing the results of their conservation efforts just yet because it typically takes 25 years for recovery efforts to manifest in larger populations, Wyneken said.

The disorientation rates of sea turtles in Broward County are between 70% and 90%, Sherwood said. STOP sends the number of disoriented turtles they encounter in regular reports to the FWC, but WhiteCloud said the commission has degraded the way the information is recorded to inflate the success of the program.

In 2017, the FWC reported 764 hatchling disorientations in Broward County, nearly twice as much as Palm Beach County at 406. The FWC reported more than 200 disorientations in Brevard and Sarasota counties, but the rest of the state had relatively low counts.

"None of the numbers related to sea turtles have any credibility or truth to them at all," Sherwood said of the FWC's data.

The FWC didn't respond to ABC News' questions about the allegations around its data recording process.

The rescuers don't plan on stopping

STOP volunteers were "heartbroken and distraught" when they found out what the FWC had planned for Broward County's turtle rescue organizations, WhiteCloud said.

Permits or not, they still plan on helping the hatchlings, WhiteCloud said.

"Almost all of us are like, screw the permits," he said. "We'll go out and do what we need to do, because that’s what our mission is. We’ll risk prosecution to continue to do what is right."

Sherwood echoed that sentiment, stating that she plans to continue the rescues as well.

"I don't need permission to rescue animals," she said. "I hope FWC knows that."

While WhiteCloud estimates that their efforts have rescued 260,000 turtles in the last 14 years, Sherwood puts that number closer to 300,000 due to their inability to record data properly in the beginning years.

But Young said the Audubon Society will take a more wait-and-see approach and will strategize how to help the turtles with less -- and later no -- permits.

"There will be opportunities as we do our volunteer work over the summer to strategize and deal with this long before 2022 comes along," he said.

Friday, May 14, 2021 at 7:00AM by Julia Jacobo, ABC News Permalink