CLEARWATER — Pinellas County's program to protect sea turtle nests has fallen into disarray, creating what state wildlife officials call an unprecedented situation.
The lone biologist licensed to oversee the marking of sea turtle nests on 22 miles of Pinellas County beaches was fired last month by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Laura Wright says she's still trying to do the job anyway.
For the past 16 months, Wright was the only person licensed by the state to work with turtle nests along the mid-county and north Pinellas beaches. She worked for the Clearwater aquarium, which has a $135,000 contract with Pinellas County to document and mark the turtle nests.
Neither aquarium CEO David Yates nor Wright will say why she was fired June 13. Yates said it had to happen "immediately" but did not elaborate. Wright would say only that they disagree about the reason why it happened.
That has left the aquarium without a licensed replacement in the middle of nesting season.
"At the end of the day, our concern, along with everybody involved, is to make sure the sea turtle nesting process is done properly," Yates said. "It's all about the animals, no matter who does it."
Meanwhile Wright, who has a master's degree in marine biology and has been working with sea turtles since 2001, is trying to keep the Pinellas program going on her own. A friend set up a GoFundMe account online to raise money. So far it has raised $900 toward its goal of $10,000.
Robbin Trindell, an administrator in the state's imperiled species program, said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is trying to work with Wright and the aquarium to make sure the monitoring of Pinellas' endangered sea turtles continues despite their split.
But if Wright and the volunteers she's supervising are unable to continue, Trindell said she's not sure what will happen next.
"We've never had to face that question at all before," she said.
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From May through October, thousands of female sea turtles swim up to Florida's beaches, climb up to a dry spot, dig a hole and lay scores of golf-ball-sized eggs. Then they cover up the hole, drag themselves back into the surf and swim away.
All over the state, trained volunteers go out every morning just before sunrise to look for the drag marks and post markers around the nests so no one disturbs them before the eggs hatch.
Surveying the nests does more than just collect scientific data — it protects the nests from harm, said Hurricane restaurant owner Bruno Falkenstein, who started marking nests on Pass-a-Grille and other south Pinellas beaches in the 1970s. If no one is out there marking the nests, tragedy can result, he explained.
"The next thing you know somebody's going to throw an umbrella right in the middle of a turtle nest," he said.
Because all seven species of sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the state licenses one person in each region to oversee nest-marking. That person also gathers such data as how many nests there are and which species are nesting. The permittee submits an annual report in November that is crucial to the state's turtle research.
The licenses belong to individuals, not to the institution for which he or she works, Trindell said. Each license allows the person to have up to 25 volunteers working under them.
So when Yates fired Wright, the aquarium lost the only person allowed to monitor local sea turtles, as well as the volunteers under her. Meanwhile, Wright lost access to the aquarium's resources, such as nest-tagging supplies and all-terrain vehicles to quickly travel from nest to nest.
Yates said he has asked the state to let the aquarium bring in another local permit holder or have a qualified employee be granted a state permit. But he said state officials told him they can't revoke her permit.
"This situation is not because (the aquarium) did not have a plan," Yates said.
On June 20, Wright asked the state to modify her permit to remove any mention of the aquarium, including removing the names of aquarium employees as her helpers and substituting other people.
Trindell said she had talked to Wright "almost every day" since then about continuing to do the work collecting sea turtle nesting data, as well as consulting with the aquarium.
After the Tampa Bay Times called Wednesday to ask about the status of Wright's permit, Trindell approved the change.
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Pinellas County has contracted with the aquarium since 1993 to conduct the surveys on its behalf, said coastal research manager Andy Squires. The state doesn't require counties to do such a survey, he said, but Pinellas pays for one because "we think it's the right thing to do to be good stewards of our resources."
Wright's firing lets the county save money, he said, "which is sad in a way because we're not paying (the aquarium) to do the work they normally would do."
The county can't just directly hire Wright, he said, because it would have to go through a legally mandated procurement process, which would last past the end of nesting season.
The county's contract covers more than just checking sea turtle nests. It also calls for monitoring the lighting on the beach, to make sure it doesn't draw turtle hatchlings away from the water. And it calls for measuring the elevations on the beaches to guarantee they're not too steep for the turtles to climb. It also calls for ensuring beach renourishment projects don't affect the turtles. The aquarium will continue the lighting and measuring duties because they don't require a state permit, Squires said.
The geographic area covered by the aquarium's contract includes parts of Sand Key, Clearwater Beach, Treasure Island and part of St. Pete Beach. Meanwhile Falkenstein's group, Sea Turtle Trackers, covers 8 miles of south Pinellas beaches, but without county funding.
Falkenstein said his wife thinks he's crazy to get up so early every day in the summer.
"I think I'm a reincarnated sea turtle," he said.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.