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.
|Courtesy John Carlson|
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.)
|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."