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Sea turtles at risk after Florida agency limits permits, environmentalists warn

Sea turtles hatchlings at risk after Florida agency limits permits, environmentalists warn
Sea turtles hatchlings at risk after Florida agency limits permits, environmentalists warn

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Environmental activists with the Sea Turtle Oversight Protection, also known as STOP, said tensions with the state agency that oversees their activities could put the lives of endangered sea turtles at risk.

Richard WhiteCloud, the founder and director of the nonprofit organization, and Eliot Scarpetti, the organization’s zone leader in North Pompano, said saving disoriented sea turtle hatchlings has contributed to the protection of a species.

WhiteCloud said that during the last 14 years he has trained volunteers like Scarpetti to help guide hatchlings away from shoreline lights and toward the water. During the last six years, Scarpetti said he has saved about 5,000 sea turtles. STOP volunteers have saved more than 250,000, WhiteCloud said.

“I have pulled them out of the middle of the road. I have pulled them out of storm drains. I have pulled them out of swimming pools, backyards, plastic cups, plastic bags,” Scarpetti said.

It’s an effort that WhiteCloud and Scarpetti both say the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission is placing in jeopardy by stripping them of half of the permits they obtain annually to perform this work. WhiteCloud said this reduced the organization’s staff by 60%.

“We used to have a really good working relationship with FWC,” WhiteCloud said adding it’s the first time something like that happens.

According to Carli Segelson, a spokesperson for the FWC, with four groups of volunteers there are just too many people during turtle nesting season.

“The greater the human activity on the beach at night, the less likely a mother turtle will come and deposit her clutch of eggs,” Segelson wrote. “Females blocked from nesting may shed their eggs at sea, nest in more vulnerable locations, or leave the beach before completely covering their nest.”

Segelson said there is “a potential” for more than 100 volunteers to be out surveying the beach nightly for up to six months in Broward County. WhiteCloud and Scarpetti said the FWC is misinformed.

“On any given night during peak season, which would be July through September, we can have maybe 20 people for 18 miles,” WhiteCloud said. “That is before the cut back on the permits. Now we can probably anticipate having one person for every four miles if we’re lucky.”

WhiteCloud said reducing the community’s ability to protect an already dwindling sea turtle population is both heartbreaking and short-sighted.

“The sea turtles that hatch on this beach in many years will come back and nest on this beach,” Scarpetti said. “If we lose these hatchlings we will never have nesting sea turtles in this section of this beach again.”

“Our presence on the beach not only ensures the safety of hatchlings but also serves as eyes on nesting females that may come ashore while we are present,” said Kristine Halager, who started the volunteer group S.T.A.R.S (Sea Turtle Awareness Rescue Stranding). “According to the Sea Turtle Recovery Plan, they call for more turtle walks during peak nesting and hatching season. Each permit can have up to 25 individuals on the beach, thus creating a very unstable environment, which makes no sense if your goal is to have fewer people on the beach at night.”

Halager said she believes the real issue is “light pollution.”

“This is the number one reason why hatchlings disorient in the first place,” she said. Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) has establish guidelines for local government regulations that control beachfront lighting to protect hatchling sea turtles. Since this regulation there has been very little to no lighting enforcement on the beach! This will all but ensure many hatchling deaths.”

Segelson said 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. This includes reducing volunteers.”

Segelson also said the FWC wants to redirect volunteers to activities that “are more beneficial for the long-term survival of the species.”

How to help STOP

The organization’s volunteers are promoting a petition drive on Change.org and they are asking the public to write to FWC commissioners asking them to reinstate the volunteers’ permits.

About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."