Commentary: Florida’s Sea Turtles and Our Changing Tides
(Photo by Patrick Walther: Loggerhead sea turtle off the coast of Cayman Island, May 2023)
A combination of childhood fondness for the ocean and sheer proximity sparked marine biologist Cheryl Zaricki’s passion for sea turtles. Now semi-retired, she leads study-abroad courses in Panama and Costa Rica for students studying marine biology.
Yet, forever enchanted by Florida, Zaricki lives mere blocks away from the sea with her husband and two children in Melbourne Beach.
In the summer months starting in May until the end of October, the Zarickis frequently comb the beach at night to spot the majestic, shelled reptiles as they pull themselves from the ocean.
Under the light of the moon, mother sea turtles crawl their way onto the shore and nest, creating small craters in the sand to lay hundreds of ivory-colored eggs.
An estimated 90% of the turtle nests that are laid in the US are in the state of Florida, according to Nova Southeastern University.
Despite thousands of years of access to these beaches along Florida’s coasts, sea turtle habitats are threatened – by coastal development, light pollution, fertilizer runoff, and other products of human interference.
Instead of understanding the existence of this species as essential to our own survival and appreciating their existence simply because they are a living creature sea turtles have become a superficial mascot for marine environmentalism.
From t-shirts and trinkets to stuffed animals, souvenir shops in coastal Florida are cluttered with sea turtle iconography. Yet as South Florida grapples with recovering from another devastating hurricane, and continues to undergo rapid development, the future of sea turtles spells out an uncertain future for Floridians.
The Significance of Sea Turtles
We, humans, have built our houses so close to where turtles have nested for eons, and it’s people like Zaricki who marvel at what she delightedly calls “charismatic megafauna.”
“Turtles are laying eggs about 500 yards from my house on the beach,” she said. “It’s important to me because it’s happening right where I live.”
(Photo by CD Davidson-Hiers: Sea turtle nesting site on the Atlantic coast of Florida, near Melbourne Beach. June, 2022.)
There is always a heightened emphasis on sea turtles in Florida simply because they are so visible, but in 2015 the species was subjected to even more attention.
In August 2015, Marine Biologist Dr. Nathan Robinson posted a shocking sea turtle rescue video that made the effects of single-use plastics impossible to ignore. In the video, Robinson removes a plastic straw that is lodged in the sea turtle's nostril. The turtle is in visible pain as the straw is removed, and this image stands in stark contrast to their typical souvenir shop portrayal.
“Plastic is everywhere” Zaricki laments.
Limiting single-use plastic is important for sustainability, but villainizing plastic straws oversimplifies a much larger problem.
Performative environmentalism can be likened to the attempts of companies in late 2019 to ditch single-use plastic —mainly plastic straws — in order to appease internet activists. A push to save the turtles cemented this species as a mascot in the cultural imagination, inextricably linking turtle conservation to products that are supposedly environmentally conscious.
All of this aesthetic association distracts from the fact that sea turtles are a keystone species.
From maintaining the health of coral reefs and seagrass beds to providing nutrients for other organisms, sea turtles are essential to maintaining marine habitats.
Sea turtles constantly graze on seagrass beds. This re-cropping of seagrass prevents overgrowth while also increases the production of nutrient-dense grasses.
While turtles do more than maintain seagrass, the health of this plant can be used as an indicator of the health of marine habitats in general.
In addition to providing food and habitat to various animals, seagrass removes unwanted nutrients, sediments, and particles from the water.
The health of Florida’s sea turtles contributes to the balance of an ecosystem of which humans are a part. If sea turtles aren’t doing well, humans aren’t doing well.
Light Pollution Solution
Human proximity to turtles has made them impossible to ignore, especially in coastal towns such as Melbourne Beach. But in spite of this physical closeness, there is a cognitive disconnect.
Zaricki emphasizes the influence of sea turtles on Florida’s economy in relation to tourism.
“There’s a culture centered around the turtles,” she said.
Every March through October, sea turtles seasonally migrate to Florida beaches, drawing curious onlookers. The Sea Turtle Preservation Society organizes turtle-watching walks along Melbourne Beach, providing a safe way to observe nesting turtles. Zaricki appreciates the educational component of the turtle walks. She also emphasizes the importance of seeking out “the right channels” to observe turtles that are not harmful to the creatures.
(Photo by CD Davidson-Hiers: A loggerhead sea turtle makes her way back to the sea after laying her eggs on Melbourne Beach one night in June, 2022. Researchers use red lights to study turtles to keep from confusing or blinding the animals at night. Photo taken during a turtle nesting tour.)
Light pollution is a significant man-made threat to sea turtles. Hatchlings mistake these artificial light sources for moonlight and struggle to find their way to the ocean. During turtle season, Melbourne Beach enforces a lights out ordinance that requires that publicly-owned lights be “shielded or shaded or shall not be utilized”.
While this ordinance is a step in the right direction, Florida as a whole lacks comprehensive regulations regarding sea turtle protection.
Florida's Environmental Track Record
The climate crisis is undeniable, but Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis’ rhetoric around climate change has always been careful. The governor is forced to respond to the effects as Floridians battle flooding and a rise in extreme weather events.
This response, however, typically boils down to performance in the wake of crisis, and conservation of sea turtles gets swept into the broader category of “left-wing stuff” that DeSantis is unwilling to address.
As scientist Pam McVety wrote in the Orlando Sentinel in 2021, Florida Democratic and Republican governors used to take “their constitutional responsibility to protect the environment seriously.”
“Not a one of them labeled protecting the environment ‘left-wing’ stuff,” McVety wrote. “What DeSantis is doing, and similar to what Gov. Rick Scott did, is dangerous.”
Florida is home to a variety of unique ecosystems that work together to protect the state from natural disasters. These integral ecosystems are often taken for granted by developers in favor of urban expansion that often cause long-term destruction.
Policymakers need to advocate for Florida’s ecosystems in order to ensure that growth is happening in sustainable ways. This usually doesn’t happen. Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades, cites Rick Scott's tenure as governor as a low point in terms of environmental policy in Florida.
“He lowered the bar dramatically in terms of growth management, not cracking down on polluters, defunding science in the Department of Environmental Protection, not talking about climate change,” Samples said.
On the surface, DeSantis’ environmental initiatives seem to be a huge improvement. Samples cautions against accolades of DeSantis’ endeavors, as the follow-through on these orders is what matters, and what she is “working to hold people in positions of power accountable for.”
An Uncertain Future
With back-to-back hurricanes that devastated southwest Florida, many of DeSantis’ policies have been focused on clean-up rather than getting to the heart of environmental issues.
Elise Bennett — the director of the Florida chapter of the Center for Biological Diversity — cautions that DeSantis’ policies fail to acknowledge the root cause of climate change which is “our dependence on fossil fuels” that contribute to major weather changes.
Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida on September 28 as a Category 4 storm and the fifth-strongest hurricane to impact the United States. In its wake, the hurricane left behind an estimated $115 billion worth of insured losses.
A significant portion of this damage was caused by flooding and Ian’s particularly destructive storm surge. Florida coastlines are naturally equipped to handle storm surges as lush mangrove forests provide a defense against winds and wave swells. However, development projects continue to greedily eat away at this barrier in favor of making a quick profit that ultimately results in irreversible destruction.
By not factoring in the necessity of healthy ecosystems, DeSantis’ efforts to help South Florida recover from Ian are solely focused on rebuilding and are not concerned with preparing the region for future weather events.
An inflated sense of human superiority grips Florida’s environmental policy.
Bennett attributes this lack of consideration to a cultural disconnect from nature. The importance of nature “seems so obvious, but it’s something that’s easy to forget in our day-to-day.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is interested in “protecting life” rather than preserving industry. This dedication to honoring life is evident in the organizations efforts to preserve the “wild places and species that we depend on.”
This fascination with protecting life is echoed in Zaricki’s love for sea turtles.
When temperatures cool, typically at night, hatchling turtles emerge from their protective shells and scurry toward the ocean following the bright light of the horizon. This triumphant return to the sea is spectacular to witness but to the hatchlings, this voyage is innate.
Their return to the ocean is an act of survival. Our disruption of that is against our own.
(Photo by CD Davidson-Hiers: A turtle nest has yet to be marked, or has already hatched on a beach along Florida's Atlantic coast, during June 2022.)
Annamarie Simoldoni is a journalist and researcher with the Florida Student News Watch.