Monday, December 18, 2017
Opinion

Do your part to protect Florida's sea turtles

Saturday is World Sea Turtle Day. It was established 12 years ago, on the birthday of Floridian and world-renowned sea turtle biologist Archie Carr, to recognize sea turtle conservation and protection efforts around the world. It is also a time to reflect on Florida's sea turtle populations and the habitats they rely on for survival throughout our state.

Florida is a special place for sea turtles. More than 90 percent of sea turtle nesting in the United States takes place here. Almost all the nesting in North America for green turtles and huge leatherback turtles happens on Florida's beaches. One of the world's largest loggerhead sea turtle rookeries is on Florida's mid Atlantic coast. Hawksbill and juvenile green sea turtles come from all over the Atlantic basin to Florida to forage, grow and seek refuge on our extensive coral and rock reef systems. Critically endangered Kemp's ridley and other sea turtle species can be found year-round in our vast sea grass beds and rich coastal lagoons.

Florida is sea turtle country. These spectacular animals are highlighted in our marine parks and public aquariums. People from all over the world participate throughout the summer in the state's many supervised sea turtle walks, taking home memories of the often surreal and always spectacular late-night emergence from the surf of one of these remarkable animals.

Beachside businesses highlight Florida's sea turtles. Hotels up and down the coast advertise their efforts to protect sea turtles through education of their guests on how not to disturb nesting sea turtles, by installing "sea turtle-friendly" lighting to darken adjacent beaches, and by promoting coastal conservation. And the highlight of a diving excursion in Florida is often a thrilling close encounter with or a sighting of sea turtles. Protecting sea turtles is good for business and for Florida's beaches.

The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge along the coast in Brevard and Indian River counties is the nation's only wildlife refuge dedicated to the protection of sea turtles. The refuge was named after the late Carr (1909-1987), the founder of our organization, the Sea Turtle Conservancy. He was a zoology professor at the University of Florida who brought attention to the world's declining sea turtle populations and is considered the father of sea turtle conservation and science. UF's Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research was named after him, as was the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's headquarters building in Tallahassee.

Protecting sea turtles in Florida takes vigilance, cooperation and balance. After all, our sea turtles have to share the beach with millions of residents and tens of millions of annual tourists. Florida has strong sea turtle protection laws in place and Floridians take sea turtle protection seriously. Many hundreds of volunteers also play a vital role by walking our beaches at night to collect data and monitor sea turtle nesting.

This vigilance has paid off as populations of endangered green and loggerhead sea turtles have been steadily increasing for a number of years and are reaching record levels. And while loggerhead populations plummeted throughout Florida during the last few years, their nesting numbers are now also increasing and approaching the level of nesting that was seen before the precipitous decline. But we cannot and must not put our guard down as rampant coastal development continues to impact our beaches, excessive illumination of nesting beaches causes tens of thousands of baby turtle hatchlings to wander aimlessly away form the water every year, and ongoing human-caused beach erosion and construction of sea walls place many additional strains on their nesting habitat in Florida.

On World Sea Turtle Day, we can all resolve to do our part to protect these majestic animals. Learn about sea turtles, and make sure you don't disturb them on the nesting beach. Florida is a special place, and sea turtles are part of what makes it so.

Gary Appelson is the policy coordinator for the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Gainesville.

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