Save the Turtles: The Misguided, Misinformed, and Misdirected Battle for Hillsboro Lighthouse

Categories: Animal Planet
lighthouse-nest.jpg
Courtesy John Carlson
​​All they wanted was some darkness for the baby sea turtles. But what started out as a simple request for protection of the endangered animals has ballooned into a yearslong battle among local advocates, the U.S. Coast Guard, and numerous agencies in which the original message has been lost in the mad dash to "save" a historic lighthouse.

The knotted, convoluted public debate over how to protect sea turtles from the light of Hillsboro Lighthouse would make Joseph Heller blush. Groups all over the place -- including the Broward County Commission -- are drafting resolutions "supporting the continuation of Hillsboro Light as a safe navigation aid," and the Sun-Sentinel published an article last month outlining how turtle folks want to extinguish "the venerable lighthouse" that has "stood vigil at Hillsboro Inlet, guiding mariners through a rocky and dangerous passage." The argument is that the lighthouse is a vital tool for mariners and you can't just turn it off for some turtles.

The argument is bullshit.

In reality, sea turtle advocates -- namely, Broward's Sea Turtle Oversight Protection (STOP) group -- aren't asking to turn out the lighthouse. All they want is a shield inside the lighthouse structure that prevents light from shining on the 1,500 feet of beach where the turtles are hatching.

Newly hatched sea turtles -- many of which are endangered species -- use the stars for clues about where the water is; because dunes block one side of the night sky, all they have to do is find the stars over the ocean and head that way to get home. Complications set in when human-generated light -- from homes, streets or, yes, lighthouses -- starts sending the baby turtles mixed messages about where to go. According to a 2010 study from STOP, almost 33 percent of the 27,000 turtles the group cataloged on Broward County beaches went the wrong way because of lights.

The public debate over what to do about the lighthouse is rooted in a Coast Guard inquiry into whether anything actually needs to be done -- they're accepting public comment until April 20, and at least two South Florida agencies are weighing in. The problem, though, is that the groups are writing resolutions with incomplete information.

The Coast Guard seems to have already decided how it feels about the issue: A letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from a Coast Guard official says that "the Coast Guard has determined that the Action may affect, but is not likely to adversely affect species and habitat protected under the [Endangered Species Act]."

It sent this letter along to the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND), which is in charge of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The group will vote on a resolution Saturday in which even the resolution's place on the group agenda misstates the situation: "Commissioner Chappell," it says, "requested that staff draft a resolution for submission to the U.S. Coast Guard supporting the continued operations of the Hillsboro Lighthouse."

(Again, STOP never said it wanted to turn off the lighthouse.)

dead-turtles-lighthouse.JPG
Courtesy John Carlson
Three dead baby sea turtles below Hillsboro Lighthouse.
​We called Commissioner Tyler Chappell; he said he hasn't seen any "scientific proof" that turtles were being affected. He got his information -- you guessed it -- from the Coast Guard, which sent along one STOP letter as proof of the other side's argument. But STOP says it's been sending the Coast Guard evidence of turtle harm for upward of two years.

We called Lt. Andrew Haley, the Coast Guard official in charge of obtaining public comment, to ask where the rest of it went. He said that he didn't know anything about it but that "there's no conclusive data either way" about turtle disorientation.

From what STOP is saying, however, there's plenty of proof.

"We buried them in emails. We snail-mailed it to them too," said STOP research analyst John Carlson. "They have overwhelming proof. They have everything except the dead bodies themselves, and that's only because we're not permitted to carry them to the Coast Guard. We've had the disorientation reports, file cabinets full of 'em."


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15 comments
Raven De Niro
Raven De Niro

Everybody should be happy about this lighthouse. It is the reason why boaters are safely traveling by the sea at night. Boat Insurance Fort Lauderdale would be happier for those who might have the lighthouse.

Guest
Guest

It is amazing that the facts are not in stories like this.  Rich Abdill, you are just another of the many reporters that fail to look at a stories entirety and then put out garbage like this one.  Here are some facts you fail to state in your story.

1. STOP's reports that they sent to the Coast Guard and your do not match the reports they sent to Florida FWC.  Why not?  Also, you state 33% went the wrong way.  Where did you get that data.  In STOPS reports that they provided to the Coast Guard only .08% of 1800 sea turtle hatchings on Hillsboro beach in 2011 were misorientated.  That is a pretty big difference from what you are stating.

2. The Coast Guard is a federal agency and must initiate Section 7 Endangered Species Act (ESA) Consultation for every action or no action that "may affect" ESA  listed species or habitat.  They don't have a choice.  Also the Coast Guard has to complete a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review for any major federal action.  I would suppose that this is a major federal action, wouldn't you?  NEPA is no 2 week process.  Unfortunately, often times it requires up to 2 years to complete these studies.  Coast Guard has no choice, the people and the law require it.

3.  John Carlson reached out many different federal and state environmental agencies and local universities with the data that he had and not ONE of them stated he had enough data or evidence to request the Coast Guard to shade their lighthouse.  In almost all cases they referred him to get with the Coast Guard and partner on further studies to get real data. 

In addition, there has been studies on green and logger head turtles that show blinking light does not effect them....that is a FACT.  As for the ambient light above the sea turtles nests in the Hillsboro area that could potentially be a problem for the turtles.  That is what needs to be studied prior to wasting tax payers dollars on shielding on a lighthouse that could also impact mariner safety.  There has never been a study on light above 100 feet and its impacts to sea turtles.  This lighthouse is 140 plus feet above the beach.  Also, if you know anything about lighthouse lights you will know that they use lenses and if you shield a portion of it the light will actually bounce off the shielding and then back into the light beam creating distortion that will not allow the light to reach the intended distance.  So if you simply go up and shield the light you may change the characteristics of the light and mariners 10 miles out will no longer see the light they rely on.  But, as with the impacts to turtles this needs to be studied.  So without these two studies being complete, how could you ask the Coast Guard to blindly make a change to the lighthouse?  A change that could effect every lighthouse in the U.S. because sea turtles nest on both coasts, the Caribbean and in Hawaii.  Now you are talking about millions of tax payers dollars that could negatively impact mariner safety and possible protect sea turtles?  How is that helping anyone?

The best way forward for everyone is to partner the Coast Gaurd, STOP, Florida FWC, USFWS to complete the two studies during this years nesting season.  This could be done by procuring grant money and using the local universities such as FAU with Dr. M. Salmon to studies the turtles while the Coast Guard makes temporary changes to the light during haches.  The results would be reviewed and discussed by the stakeholders to develeop an adaptive management plan for the turltles and do whats best for everyone.  

But instead of reporting on that, you put out the article you published and help divide communities (historic and sea turtle) to keep the drama going.  How are you and John Carlson helping if you are simply putting out nonsense and not part of the solution as a team?

Daryl white
Daryl white

What in the hell did the turtles do for the past 105 years? Do we not have anything better to do with our time? Are we this messed up?... Get a life

Lavenderblu
Lavenderblu

EXCELLENT article!!! Maybe embarrassing them with the truth may help. As a STOP volunteer that has spent countless nights out til 5 am on the beach helping save baby turtles from imminent death due to our invasion of the nesting habitat, I am insulted and appalled that the Coast Guards response is that our "real time" data, something that no other group does is inconclusive. Do they have to come out on the beach to see these creature perish with their own eyes? Govt bureaucracy at its finest!

RJPTrip
RJPTrip

Best part of the article is that it mentions they have already put in one modification to prevent light from entering the windows of high priced condos --- but no modification that might save endangered turtles??  Seems to be all about control and payoffs.

Trschwab
Trschwab

Does the full moon ever come into play in throwing off the newborn baby turtles' navigation?

Me1anieLynn
Me1anieLynn

Come on, this one's easy! It's win/win! It's such a shame that something as simple as adding 'curtains' or 'shades' on the windows that face the beach is taking years to accomplish. I hope this article helps resolve the gross misunderstanding, for the sake of the precious baby sea turtles. Perhaps environmentalist groups are perceived by some as coming on a bit strong at times, yet their passion for saving wildlife is to be admired and respected, not resented. If it were not for environmental activists, the natural resources that do remain on earth right now would likely have been demolished long ago for the sake of profits. Draw the curtains and put it to bed; the lighthouse will continue to guide boats and the turtles will continue to hatch babies. Win/win.

Seth Platt
Seth Platt

Great Article Rich.  Way to dig into the heart of the issues and avoid the alarmist hype. I think a compromise can be found that satisfies all the stakeholders involved in this issue.

GUEST
GUEST

Dear Guest,

In response to your #1 above, the reason why STOPs numbers and FWC numbers do not match is because STOP does not create official state reports. The Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program runs the sea turtle nesting and hatching, etc reports for the county.  STOP is only permitted to reorient disoriented turtles to insure they reach the water.  The BCSTCP disorientation reports are official state documents, the same as all other counties turn in, and are considered official since they are permitted to dig up the nests and count the actual number of eggs that hatch.  STOP only counts the number of tracks, which can be inaccurate. 

Your idea of a study is already on going, and has been ongoing for many years.  BCSTCP is staffed by Nova Southeastern University graduate students who are studying Marine Biology, some of which already have their Master's degrees. ALL of the data is used by students towards a thesis.  Also, Hatchling Orientation Indexes (HOIs) are already researched and collected in a manner that is scientifically viable. All this data is given to the state. STOP collects their own data.

Laura Eldredge
Laura Eldredge

Thanks for the discerning eye. I would also like to add a couple of discrepancies into the mix

Hatchlings use a 180 degree horizontal view when emerging and moving and do not look up. Even Richard Whitecloud, STOP founder, has been quoted in the media as stating such. For a lighthouse that is that tall and shines outward, and not downward, the hatchlings dont perceive the light. 

Also, the stretch of beach at the Hillsboro Club has one of the highest densities of nests in all of Broward County.  And those hatchlings disorient in extremely low numbers.  

The 33% is a misrepresentation due to the high disorients in the Ft Lauderdale beach and not representative of the Hillsboro and lighthouse areas. 

Thank you, Rich Abdill for highlighting the fact that the city and environmentalists must work together to form a compromise and that cutting off the lighthouse is not a necessary tactic.  However, some of the 10 suggestions are ill conceived and require more thought, as previously stated above. 

guest
guest

The lighthouse is probably one of the factors, over the years, THAT MADE THEM ENDANGERED

Guest
Guest

STOP is a great org and their mission is commendable....however the facts are wrong on this situation as reported in this article. Insulted and appalled by the Coast Guard....are you serious?  STOP provided data that didn't match what they turned into FWC as the data and STOP has also help twist this situation into a turtle vs historic situation.  That is crazy.  How could the coast guard look at it in any way besides looking at the three possible issues at hand then using the proper planning tools required by the public make a decision.  1. Safety of life at sea, 2. Endangered Species Act 3. Historic value of the light.  These are the issues and this is what must be studied.   

Guest
Guest

Best part of the article is that it doesn't state that John Carlson initially asked his Congressman to shade the light from his condo and then went into the impacts on sea turtles.  FOIA the info from the Coast Guard like I did and you will see.    Controls and payoffs...you have no idea how this works.  Federal agencies can not simply make a federal action (change a lighthouse characteristic) because they want to.  There has to be planning document, public scoping, official scientific data used and consultation with relevant federal agencies.  I am not sure where the Coast Guard is at in their process but obviously neither does the author of this article.

Sea Turtle Oversight
Sea Turtle Oversight

Great question. STOP volunteers documented over 1000 hatchouts complete with moon data (position and phase), weather conditions and much more to determine this very point. Answer. The full moon helps the turtles. A full moon indicates that the sky is clear and the skyglow from city lights reflecting off the clouds (light pollution) is minimal. Hatchlings have a narrow field of vertical view when looking for their light cues, so they are not looking up, but rather out. In nature, dunes and trees would create a low dark area within their field of view to help them navigate to the sea, however, now it is reversed and the dark area is the sea.

Lavenderblu
Lavenderblu

CORRECTION!!!! STOP  only count tracks and thats what makes it inaccurate??!! You are confusing STOP with someone else...STOP is the ONLY group on the sand at night, in real time..monitoring the nests AS THEY HATCH and RECOVERING the turtles that have been disoriented..its as accurate as its going to get! When STOP misses a hatch out, then they count tracks including what directions and what light sources caused the disorientation...all this making STOPS data much more accurate than any  groups, whether you want to consider it official state documentation or not. 

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