Study: Florida’s beach-hardening strategy threatens green sea turtle nesting area

Study: Florida’s beach-hardening strategy threatens green sea turtle nesting areas

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‘Smart’ adaptation plans needed to protect critical beach nesting habitat

Staff Report

FRISCO — Florida’s strategy of trying to “harden” beaches to prevent erosion poses a serious threat to sea turtles, university scientists said this week, outlining results of a study that tracked reproduction for 30 years.

Hardening beaches puts up barriers to wildlife and impacts sea turtles’ ability to nest,” the researchers said.

“It’s not a popular idea, but we need to allow beaches to move,” said Llewellyn Ehrhart, a biology professor at the University of Central Florida. “The crux of the matter is that sea-level rise is happening, there’s no question,” Ehrhart said. “Our response has to be an intelligent one. We can’t continue to build hard structures because it is only going to make matters worse for sea turtles and the beach in general. We need courageous leadership to find good solutions, not just easy ones.”

The study, published in Chelonian Conservation and Biology, focused on green sea turtles in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in southern Brevard County.

By documenting the number of turtles laying eggs, the number of eggs that hatch and how many turtles make it to the water, Ehrhart was able to demonstrate what is documented fact today: The 13-mile stretch of beach in southern Brevard is one of the most important nesting habitats for green and loggerhead turtles in the western hemisphere.

Ehrhart and his team took the turtle data and looked at how sea level has risen over the same span and showed how sea-level rise and an increase in storm intensity could potentially impact the refuge in two fundamental ways.

The first includes beach erosion and an overall narrowing of the beach berm within refuge boundaries. Currently, egg and nest loss to erosion is the factor that has the greatest negative impact on the emerging success of hatchlings.

The findings suggests that the way communities respond to the eroding beaches is hurting wildlife and could have disastrous effects on the sea turtles, which saw a dramatic rise in numbers after the refuge was created in 1991. Green turtles numbered in the 30s in 1982, Ehrhart said. This past year there were more than 12,000. The comeback was also seen in loggerhead nests, which numbered 9,000 in the 1980s and had more than 15,000 in 2014.

The study suggests a plan of action needs be put in place to guard against the pending effects of climate change. Given that the sea level has risen about 5.75 inches in 112 years, and continues to rise at a more rapid pace, the erosion of beaches will also continue more rapidly, the study says.Armoring the private and commercial properties in the refuge would be disastrous for the habitat, Ehrhart said. A strategic plan could help prevent this and tackle the problem of naturally occurring erosion issues as well, he said.

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