Sea turtles have been on the earth over 100 million years and in modern times, their population numbers have been on the decline. In the wild, sea turtles are susceptible to predation, disease, and even beach erosion. In urban environments, such as Miami Beach, they can run into issues with fishing gear, beach furniture, vehicles, people, and the biggest challenge of all, light pollution.
Sea turtle hatchlings are born with the instinct to head toward the brightest light on the beach after hatching, which is usually the light of the sky reflected off the ocean surf. In coastal areas with artificial lighting, hatchlings may become disoriented and travel in the wrong direction away from the ocean, potentially never making it to the water. It is estimated that only 1 in every 1000 hatchling is able to reach adulthood.
The sea turtle life cycle involves a couple of steps that take course over many, many years. Nesting females crawl onto the beach at night and lay their eggs in the sand to kick-start a new generation of marine turtles. Depending on the species, these eggs generally incubate for about 60 - 90 days before they finally hatch. At the end of their incubation period, the hatchlings emerge from their nests, push their way to the surface, and immediately enter a frenzied race to reach the water. Once in the ocean, sea turtles can take anywhere between 10-50 years to reach adulthood and will nest in 2-4 year intervals to keep the life cycle going.
At the state level, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is responsible for ensuring compliance with Florida Statutes, they also enforce turtle conservation permits, respond and investigate incidents, and make changes to the permits and requirements. At the next level of regulation is Miami-Dade County, who holds the state permit and oversees daily survey of nests. Their responsibilities include evaluating hatch success, nest relocation, and responding to disorientations. The City of Miami Beach helps connect all the entities involved by making recommendations to the state and county, ensuring compliance with the sea turtle protection ordinance, and overseeing the educational component of the program. It’s important to note that city is not allowed to change regulations, issue permits or handle sea turtles and their nests.
The City is working on short and long term strategies to reduce potential disorientations using the reports from Code Compliance inspections, as well as the nest and disorientation data collected by the County and FWC. The Environment and Sustainability Department regularly analyzes the data to help other city departments prioritize lighting retrofit and enforcement efforts where they will have the greatest impact.
As a residents or visitor, you can also be advocate for sea turtles. Advocates can report what they see, educate friends and neighbors to stay clear of nests . It is important to remember, advocates cannot touch nests, hatchling or sea turtles.
There are many other practices that you can follow to improve the nesting conditions for the marine turtles that lay their eggs every year on our beaches. Sea turtle hatchlings orient themselves toward the ocean by the reflection of the moon on the water so excessive artificial lighting can disorient and prevent them from reaching the ocean. Although there is no substitute for a naturally dark sky, properly managing artificial lighting in beachfront properties is an important measure for reducing disorientations. Where possible, use shields to direct light away from the beach and choose turtle-friendly light fixtures. Learn more about lighting.
Miami-Dade County hosts nightime sea turtle releases through their Sea Turtle Conservation program. Learn more at Miami Eco Adventures.