Saving Sea Turtles With a Lights-Out Policy in Florida

Fredrica Lindsay
for National Geographic News
March 10, 2003

For hatchling sea turtles, artificial light is a killer. Instinct drives them from their nests on beaches towards the brightest horizon, ideally the waterline on an undeveloped coast.

But the bright lights of coastal development—streetlamps, illuminated parking lots, and buildings—can disorient nesting, egg-laden female turtles and lure newly-hatched baby turtles towards artificial light sources. As hatchlings turn away from the sea to cross into streets and parking lots, they are invariably killed.

A program to darken the coastline of Sarasota County in central Florida, an area with the highest turtle nest density on the Gulf of Mexico, has substantially brightened the prospects for the sea turtle population—without sacrificing the safety or security of human residents.

Shielding Lights; Saving Turtles

"The darker the beaches, the more attractive they are for the female turtles and the less disorienting for the hatchlings," explained Kenya M. Leonard, an environmental specialist for Sarasota County's Environmental Services Coastal Resources program and administrator of the county's Sea Turtle Protection Program.

"I have yet to find a lighting situation that can't be properly resolved to protect both the residents and the turtles," she added.

According to Beth Brost, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the beaches of Sarasota County have the highest density (58 nests per kilometer) of loggerhead turtle nesting on the west coast of Florida.

With 35 miles (56 kilometers) of warm, white sand beaches, Sarasota County was home to an average of 42 percent of the loggerhead turtles that nested along Florida's west coast during the past five years.

For the past 10 years, an average of 3,104 loggerhead nests have been documented each year along the county beaches during the May through October nesting season.

The turtle species nesting on Sarasota County beaches include the threatened loggerhead and endangered green sea turtles. In the last five years, nests also have been documented for the rare Kemp's ridley and leatherback sea turtles.

"We have miles of suitable nesting habitat. One beach in particular, Casperson beach on Manasota Key, has no high rises or armored beaches and draws the greatest number of turtles. Having a healthy dune system there also helps," Leonard explained.

Home Sweet Home

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