NAVARRE BEACH, FL (AP) Michael Martino’s specialty license plate reads “Helping Sea Turtles Survive.” He rents kayaks and bicycles instead of Jet Skis and motor scooters at his eco-friendly beach shop on this Florida Panhandle barrier island.
But the San Francisco native, who has seen two homes destroyed by hurricanes since 2004, calls himself “an environmental hypocrite” because he supports sand dredging that will help protect the island’s homes from storm surge but has killed three rare sea turtles.
One more turtle death would likely result in the project being shutdown until fall, leaving 2 mi. of shoreline exposed through the bulk of hurricane season, which began June 1. The turtles are close to shore because it is mating season.
“There is a saying about how you can be a tree hugger until you start to get splinters,” said Martino, who lost his home to Hurricane Ivan two years ago, rebuilt, and saw the new home washed away by Hurricane Dennis less than a year later.
“We are on the edge of our seats over the turtles. We are into their season. It’s just like with the hurricanes — we know they are out there and it’s just a matter of when are we going to kill another one of them and the project is going to have to stop,” Martino said.
The beach replenishment is a frantic round-the-clock process. Machines use pipes to suck sand from the ocean floor and put it back on shore. The pipes also suck up shrimp and crabs, two of the turtles’ favorite foods, luring them near the pipes. If the turtles, which can weigh 350 lbs., get too close, they get sucked into the pipe and die.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a per-species quota of turtles that can be killed through annual dredging projects in each of its Gulf Coast districts.
Ron Silver, who tracks turtle deaths for the corps’ Jacksonville district, said managing the projects requires a careful balancing of the overall turtle allotment for the region.
In May, Silver’s office shutdown dredging in Destin after three died. The city had hoped to buffer five miles of beach before hurricane season. Under federal guidelines, dredging cannot resume until October when districts receive new turtle allotments for the year.
Florida isn’t the only place where sea turtles are holding up plans to rebuild beaches. South Padre Island, TX, is awaiting a decision from the corps on a variance from the Endangered Species Act that would allow it to begin dredging this summer during mating season for the Kemp’s ridley turtle.
“The fact is that we’ve had two very active storm seasons in a row and that has resulted in an additional need for beach renourishment. This has been coupled by milder winters, which has lead to more turtles,” Silver said.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-FL, has spent months trading and borrowing allotments of endangered turtle species among corps’ districts to allow several Florida projects to continue.
“There needs to be some type of recognition that sea turtles are important, but there are a lot of homeowners and taxpayers in harm’s way without any type of protective barrier or beach and they are being hung up because of the turtle issue,” Miller’s spokesman Dan McFaul said.
The congressman supports changing the federal Endangered Species Act as a long-term solution, McFaul said.
Such talk worries Florida sea turtle advocates including David Hochberg who serves on Brevard County’s Sea Turtle Preservation Society. Although his county has the largest nesting population of loggerhead turtles in the country, Hochberg said the turtles are not plentiful.
“This time of year you will see a lot of them in Florida waters, but there is a reason (cities) have to have incidental take permits to be allowed to dredge in case they kill a sea turtle. The sea turtles are in trouble. Certain species, if we don’t act, might not survive beyond 15 to 20 years,” he said.
While converted shrimp trawlers used by dredging companies to catch turtles and remove them from the path of the equipment are effective in preventing many turtle deaths, dredge work done in the summer mating season poses a danger to the animals, said Peter Eliazar, a scientist with the University of Florida’s Archie Carr Center for sea turtle research.
At Longboat Key, a barrier island of 7,500 residents north of Sarasota, a 10-mi. beach restoration is weeks away from completion. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection had listed the beach as “critically eroded,” meaning residents were especially vulnerable to hurricanes.
Juan Florensa, Longboat’s public works director, points to the 112 turtles relocated by trawlers during the work as proof the region’s turtle population is strong. Three turtles have perished there since work began last year.
Florensa advocates increasing the number of turtle deaths allowed for some species in dredging projects.
“I think people can be protected and turtles can be protected at the same time,” he said.
Destin Mayor Craig Barker said beaches in front of the hotels and condominiums that line his popular tourist town are so washed out “tourists cannot even put chairs and umbrellas in some places.”
With dredging on hold until October, even a mild hurricane or direct hit from a tropical storm could mean big trouble, he said.
“I am vitally concerned about what is going to happen here in the next few months with hurricane season,” he said.
At Navarre Beach, Martino monitors the progress of the dredging work in his office by a webcam mounted on a pole on the lot where his home once stood. He celebrated when construction crews reached the area in front of his property.
As he watched the piles of sand go up, he talked about plans to rebuild his home for a third time — this time on 48 pilings 48 ft. above sea level.
“This is good,” he said. “They are getting it done. I understand (the turtles) are a protected species, but my children have lost their nest twice and I am looking out for my children.”