A loggerhead hatchling heads toward hotel lights in Florida | Credit: Sea Turtle Conservancy

​Keeping Sea Turtles in the Dark

Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund boosts efforts to cut light pollution along Florida’s nesting beaches

Selling darkness in the Sunshine State can be tough.

Florida’s beach communities sparkle at night with homes and condominiums decked out with beautiful lighting systems. Beachside resorts and businesses depend on artificial lighting to ensure safety and entertainment for guests and customers at night.

Wherever people live, work and play, nighttime lights follow. For decades, steadily increasing illumination along Florida’s coasts has wreaked havoc on sea turtles, which rely on subtle, nighttime lighting cues to deposit eggs on beaches and make it safely to sea as hatchlings.

By the early 1990s, Floridians committed to turtle conservation understood how tenuous the situation had become. Suzi Fox, director of the Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch, remembers the bad days on her island community on the Gulf of Mexico just south of Tampa.

“There wasn’t one half-block area in 7 miles where you could release a hatchling and have it go to the sea,” Fox said. “We didn’t have any lighting ordinances back then, and people just didn’t want to turn off their lights.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Fox and her fellow turtle conservationists chipped away at light pollution in Florida, which hosts more than 90 percent of all sea turtle nesting in the continental United States. Local governments began adopting turtle-friendly lighting ordinances, and conservation projects – many funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) – helped focus efforts along high-density nesting sites.

On Anna Maria Island, Fox and her group were making progress – until 2010, when the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill threatened to wipe out everything they had been working toward.

“I’ve been doing sea turtle work for 30 years, and that 2010 spill dropped the bottom out of my world,” Fox said. “But I’ll tell you what – there has been a little silver lining, and it has really blossomed into something bigger.”

That silver lining emerged in the years following the spill, when sea turtle conservation groups in Florida began tapping into unprecedented conservation resources offered by NFWF, first through its Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife and more recently though its Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund (GEBF).

For Anna Maria Island’s sea turtles, Fox said, the difference sparked by NFWF funding “has been night and day.”

“Before that first round of funding,” Fox said, “there would be 10 disorientations in front of just one resort. Practically all of the hatchlings would go backward, year after year. They’d all wind up in a pool or out into the road and run over by cars.

“In the first year after those first projects – nothing. Everything went into the sea.”

Residents along Florida’s Gulf Coast seem to have come around, too, Fox said.

“People are learning how good it feels to do something for wildlife. They can see the difference these lighting projects makes for turtle nesting, and they can see that properties are still safe, well-lit and even more attractive at night. Just last night we had people out on the beach watching meteor showers, really enjoying the beauty of a dark beach. For many of them, it’s like they’ve come back to a place they knew and enjoyed as a child – before all the development – and they want that for their children and grandchildren, too.”

Armed with GEBF funding and the knowledge gained in such early projects, turtle experts are now steadily moving along Florida’s Panhandle, expanding the darkness as they go.

Tracks left by sea turtle hatchlings in Florida show clear signs of disorientation | Credit: Sea Turtle Conservancy

Deadly disorientation

Sea turtles face threats to their survival from the moment they hatch out of their sandy nests to the ends of their often long lives.

Hatchlings that survive a gauntlet of land-, air- and sea-based predators must still contend with man-made threats. Fishing bycatch, loss of nesting habitat to development, boat strikes and even direct consumption of turtle meat and eggs have taken a heavy toll. Today, almost all sea turtles found in U.S. waters are federally listed as endangered; the loggerhead is listed as threatened.

Of all the man-made threats to sea turtles, artificial lighting near nesting beaches may be the most widespread and onerous, affecting both nesting females and legions of hatchlings.

“The exact number of hatchlings who are disoriented and die every year in Florida is unknown, but it’s probably well over 100,000,” said David Godfrey, executive director of the Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy. “When they pop out of an egg in a dark nest, their very first instinctive drive is to make it to the water and swim out as far as they can. In that moment, they’re relying a little bit on the slope of the beach – they instinctively know to go downward – but they’re relying even more on light. The visual cue they would typically use, the horizon out over the ocean, is always just a bit brighter, because of starlight and moonlight.”

Even a single bright light near a nesting site can cause all of the hatchlings on a given beach, or most of them, to head inland, Godfrey said.

“They’ve got a finite amount of energy when they hatch, which they desperately need to get to the water and swim out to safety. When they get disoriented like that, they expend all of that energy scrambling around looking for the ocean. They become very vulnerable to predation, to dehydration, to being cooked in the sun, to being crushed by cars.”

Artificial lights near nesting beaches also threaten adult female sea turtles hauling out to nest. As they’re approaching a beach from the sea, these females instinctually seek out dark places to deposit their eggs. Bright lights can deter females from coming ashore at all. If they come ashore despite the lights, they can be lured away from the sea.

Evidence of sea turtle disorientation along Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts can be heart-rending and grisly. Hatchlings often leave confused, zig-zagging tracks in the sand before heading inland to be crushed on a nearby roadway. Gigantic adult females sometimes wind up in a resort’s swimming pool, or under the wheels of a vehicle.

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Before-and-after images show sharp reduction in light pollution at beachside properties in Florida | Credit: Sea Turtle Conservancy

Expanding the darkness

Throughout its 31-year history, NFWF has worked to bolster sea turtle numbers and maximize conservation investments by awarding competitive grants to a range of organizations operating in southeastern and Gulf Coast states, as well as in nearby countries where sea turtles migrate. NFWF-funded projects have focused on habitat restoration, nest relocations, predator control, bycatch avoidance and public outreach.

In 2009, NFWF launched a 10-year strategy to guide conservation investments that measurably improve the recovery of seven sea turtle populations in the Western Hemisphere: leatherbacks, Kemp’s ridleys, loggerheads, and hawksbills in the Northwest Atlantic; and leatherbacks, loggerheads and hawksbills in the Eastern Pacific.

NFWF-funded projects have increased the productivity of more than 100 miles of priority nesting beaches, allowing hundreds of thousands of new hatchlings to make it to the sea. NFWF’s in-water efforts to implement safer fishing gear practices reduced sea turtle bycatch 50-100 percent in the United States and some neighboring countries, saving thousands of turtles each year.

“NFWF excels at directing funding to the right projects, reviewing implementation and helping fine-tune them to make sure they’re addressing the hot spots,” Godfrey said. “That’s a role that no other entity can do.”

NFWF-funded projects focus on all aspects of the turtle life cycle, from nesting beaches to in-water interactions with fisheries, but the organization is just one piece in the conservation puzzle. Many other conservation teams both large and small are working to increase the available science, educate the public on key issues and improve management of these threatened and endangered species.

The cumulative effects of all sea turtle conservation efforts made headlines this year when scientists announced record-breaking numbers of nests at many Southeast beaches. The news was especially good for green sea turtles, which were in serious jeopardy just 20 years ago when only 455 nests were recorded in the Archie Carr refuge on Florida’s Atlantic coast. After significant conservation efforts and management protection, this population is recovering its former numbers, with 12,026 green turtle nests counted at the Archie Carr refuge this year.

Ramped-up conservation efforts following the Deepwater Oil Spill are expected to multiply these successes by giving increasing numbers of turtles even better nesting habitats. In quick action following the 2010 disaster, NFWF established the Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife to help protect endangered sea turtles and thousands of migratory birds. Projects included the relocation of turtle eggs directly threatened by oil washing ashore, along with lighting projects such as the one on Anna Maria Island.

NFWF’s efforts expanded again after 2013, when a U.S. District Court approved two plea agreements resolving certain criminal cases against BP and Transocean which arose from the spill. The agreements directed a total of $2.544 billion to NFWF to support projects benefiting the natural resources of the Gulf Coast that were impacted by the spill. Between 2013 and 2018, NFWF’s GEBF will receive a total of $1.272 billion for barrier island and river diversion projects in Louisiana, $356 million each for natural resource projects in Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi, and $203 million for similar projects in Texas.

Now in its third year, GEBF has supported 51 projects worth nearly $395 million. In making the awards, NFWF has worked closely with key state and federal resource agencies to select projects that remedy harm and eliminate or reduce the risk of future harm to Gulf Coast natural resources.

In Florida, NFWF has awarded more than $54.5 million from the GEBF for 16 projects focused on shorebird conservation, oyster reef habitats, recovery of Gulf fisheries, and the restoration of high-priority coastal habitats impacted by the spill. GEBF funding also has enabled the Sea Turtle Conservancy and other organizations to ramp up turtle conservation work.

Local turtle experts and NFWF staffers established key focal areas for conservation efforts that would mitigate the damage caused by the oil spill. At the top of the list: eliminating light pollution along nesting beaches.

“We knew sea turtles were being disoriented, and we had good evidence and guidance from researchers on what could be done with lighting,” Godfrey said. “There were a variety of products already on the market, amber or red LEDs for example, that had already been reviewed and approved by state researchers as turtle-friendly lighting.”

In addition to implementing conservation projects on a massive scale, GEBF funding offered the opportunity to do something unprecedented in Florida, Godfrey said. Investments by various entities, including state and federal agencies and the spill-related Natural Resource Damages Trustees, had helped dim the lights at beaches along public lands. But, Godfrey said, there had never been a large, focused effort to help private property owners convert their lights.

“This was the first time that a pool of money was available for various groups to go out, meet with property owners, show them evidence of problem lights, show them the types of lights that would fix it, and then tell them that we’re going to help them pay for it. All they had to do was let us do it. It was a really unique position to be in, helping big condos or resorts or businesses cover that expense, and providing the guidance to do it right.”

These early projects, Godfrey said, provided ample evidence of success.

“Turtles were disorienting less, the lights last longer, and the people who live there actually like it. There’s no security issue, and they’re saving tons of money on exterior lighting bills. That first shot of funding showed that turtle-friendly light management is effective, it works, people like it, and the turtles respond the way we hoped they would.”

On Anna Maria Island, Fox’s group also found success. With funding from NFWF’s Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife, the group retrofitted commercial and residential private properties with lower-frequency, turtle-friendly lighting. NFWF-funded research into the latest technologies – LEDs, light shields and other technologies and techniques – helped establish the most cost-effective practices for property owners to comply with nighttime lighting ordinances.

Working on private properties was key, Fox said, as homes often outnumber businesses along the state’s Gulf Coast. Before those NFWF-funded projects began, she added, property owners thought they’d have to pay thousands of dollars to comply with lighting ordinances.

“Once it was established that only a couple hundred bucks could make a huge difference, people were knocking down our door. People started to change their own properties, even without grant funding, to match their neighbors.”

And now, after decades of NFWF-funded conservation work and the recent funding boosts, Fox’s group and others like it around Florida are reporting incredible progress in addressing nighttime disorientations, one of the most daunting man-made threats to sea turtles. When Fox and local codes enforcement officers look over Anna Maria Island’s beaches at night, they’re astonished at how far they’ve come.

“In between the grant-funded buildings, everybody else has come into compliance,” she said. “Now we have blocks, whole cities, with turtle-friendly lighting.”

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A sea turtle heads back to sea after nesting on Anna Maria Island | Credit: Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch

Next steps

The initial round of GEBF grant awards made in 2013 expanded light-pollution efforts in the Florida Panhandle, with an emphasis on sea turtle hatchling survivorship at beaches with a history of disorientations. Loggerheads there belong to what’s known as the “Northern Gulf Coast Recovery Unit,” a nesting assemblage at high risk and whose beaches had the most direct impacts from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

A $1.5 million grant awarded to the Sea Turtle Conservancy will greatly increase sea turtle hatchling survivorship and target problematic lighting near existing dark areas. Much of the work, which aims to improve contiguous stretches of beach rather than small pockets of habitat, is unfolding across priority Panhandle beaches.

Godfrey says this area of Florida presents new challenges.

“There are a lot more single-family residences in this area of the state, and many of them are rental vacation properties with out-of-state owners,” Godfrey said. “Some counties have only recently set up turtle lighting ordinances, and they haven’t had the decades of public education about sea turtles that we’ve had in other parts of the state.

“So it takes a little more salesmanship to make it happen. We survey lights at night, and then we meet with local volunteer organizations and county enforcement officers. We try to pass along what we’ve learned about how to track down and communicate with property managers and property owners, and how to get permission to look at a property, come up with a plan, get approval, and then actually go in and address problem lighting.”

GEBF-funded lighting projects along the Panhandle run the gamut from minor adjustments at single-family homes to complete retrofits at large condominium developments. Properties are chosen in part for their potential to build on existing darkness. One project in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., has dramatically dimmed lighting at a large condominium development flanked on both sides by dark nesting beaches at state parks.

At the same time, conservation groups funded by GEBF grants also work to prevent new problem lighting.

“We’ve developed a training course for sea turtle lighting management, in both the design of new buildings or in retrofitting existing ones,” Godfrey said. “We want builders, architects and planners to design these things the right way, using very easy-to-use technology.

“Instead of using big flood lights that come down from the top of a building and light up everything on the seaward side of the property – which is how people have done it for decades – you can bring those lights lower, you can shield them from the beach, you can use certain wavelengths of light that are more friendly to wildlife but still provide you with all the safety and security needed.”

The goal, Godfrey said, is clear.

“We are going to darken more and more habitats in the most important nesting ground in the United States. And we’re going to eliminate the disorientation of tens of thousands of hatchlings every year.”