Beach work continuing into start of turtle nesting season
STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of May 3, 2012)
Photo: Beach work still going on late Monday on the north barrier island.
A north-island dredging and sand spreading project that was supposed to be finished by April 30 in continuing into May, prompting concerns about interference with sea turtle nesting.
“I understood the effort was to cease and the beach be returned to pristine condition as soon as the first turtle came ashore to lay her eggs,” says Vince Nelson, a volunteer in the Sebastian Inlet State Park Turtle Program. “I was very disappointed to see the heavy equipment, pipes and pumping stations continuing to work after turtles came ashore.”
The Sebastian Inlet District began dredging 140,000 cubic yards of sand from a 42-acre sand trap inside the mouth of the inlet in early February.
“The sand trap was blasted with dynamite in the 1970s,” says Martin Smithson, Director of the Inlet District. “The sand collects there by design and fills up the trap about every four years. You can tell when it is full because the channel starts to shoal in. It was last dredged in 2007.”
Over the past three months, Fort Pierce contractor Dickerson Florida, Inc. has been sucking sand out of the inlet and pumping it through a 12-inch diameter black plastic pipe directly onto Indian River County beach between the inlet and the McLarty Treasure Museum.
The beach lies within the boundaries of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, which the Sea Turtle Conservancy calls “the most productive nesting site for loggerhead turtles in the Western Hemisphere.”
According to a 2011 Inlet District press release, beach renourishment was supposed to begin in early January and “continue no later than April 30,” in accordance with the permit from the Army Corps of Engineers that authorizes the project.
The release also said nighttime construction, while permitted, would be “avoided as much as possible,” because night work requires the use of floodlights which frighten and disorient turtles.
As it turned out, the project did not get underway until Feb. 1, according to Smithson, and has been “a 24/7 operation” with lights and loud equipment on the beach every night.
The district is now operating the project under a 10-day extension granted by the corps and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and expects to be off the beach no later than May 10.
Smithson says the delay is due to weather events and an unexpected amount of debris in the sand trap that has repeatedly clogged the dredge.
“We had some pretty good wind events on the beach and when the wind is howling at 30 knots it causes problems in positioning the dredge and keeping the floating pipe in place.”
Smithson says the dredge has sucked tires, pieces of docks and palm fronds out of the 8-foot deep sand trap.
“The palm fronds get caught in the cutter head and block the suction. When that happens they have to stop the pump and lift the cutter head out of the water and clean it.”
The project is being monitored by Vero Beach firm Ecological Associates, Inc. (EAI) to make sure turtles are not harmed, and Smithson says he does not believe there has been any interference with nesting.
Florida Park Service Information Director Jennifer Diaz agrees. “Park staff believes the ongoing work will not interfere with turtle nesting.”
But Nelson is not convinced. “Turtles are distracted by lights and avoid nesting. They typically come back to the same beach area each year and lay their eggs near the dunes, but turtles that would nest on this stretch of beach may be obstructed or hindered by the pipes and vehicle tracks.”
Sea turtles have been swimming in the oceans since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Three types nest in the Archie Carr Wildlife Refuge in Indian River and Brevard counties: Leatherbacks, loggerheads and green turtles.
In 2011 there were 14,468 loggerhead nests, 4,479 green turtle nests ad 59 leatherback nests, in the 3½-mile section of the refuge that borders the Sebastian Inlet.
The peak of the nesting season is in June and July but some turtles come ashore months earlier.
According to Florida Fish and wildlife Conservation Commission, loggerhead and green turtle nesting seasons begin in April. A March 14 news release form the commission reports, “Leatherback turtle nests already have been documented this year on beaches in Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties.”
“We got our first turtle, a loggerhead, on April 18 or 19,” says Sebastian Inlet State Park Ranger Rick Grimaldi.
Smithson says he knows of two turtles that have nested in the area so far this year but says neither is in the construction zone.
The problem is turtles obstructed or frightened away are not as easy to count as those that have come ashore. Observers from EAI and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are monitoring the work area to make sure any nests are protected. They also watch for turtle tracks that indicate “false crawls,” in which female turtles have come ashore but been unable to nest and returned to the ocean with their precious cargo of 100 or more eggs.
But a site visit found newly pumped sand forms an abrupt wall midway up the beach that would certainly stop turtles from reaching the edge of the dunes where they prefer to nest. The area below the sand cliff is washed by waves that would wipe out any “false crawl” tracks, making it impossible to know how many turtles have been blocked from nesting sites.
“Another concern is the mama turtles are sensitive to the type of sand on their nesting beach and tend to avoid sand they are not familiar with,” says Nelson. “Unless the beach is put back into near-pristine condition turtles may be dissuaded form nesting in disturbed areas.”
Sea turtles in Florida are protected by state law and by the United States Endangered Species Act of 1973. Leatherback and green turtles are classified as endangered, while loggerheads are considered threatened. Anyone who attempts to or does harass, pursue, capture, hunt, trap, harm or kill a sea turtle can face fines up to $100,000 and up to one year of imprisonment.