Palm Beach County targets inland lights endangering sea turtles

Dimming the lights along Palm Beach County 's shoreline hasn't been enough to save some easily distracted sea turtles.

Thousands of disoriented sea turtle hatchlings go the wrong way each year, getting drawn toward inland lights instead of the moon and stars reflecting off the sea.

That has Palm Beach County launching a new push to limit lighting farther inland at everything from car dealerships to football stadiums miles from shore.

"The increasing problem has been urban glow … reflected from well inland, miles inland," said Paul Davis, county environmental manager. "It's not just beachfront lights that are the problem."

Even under ideal circumstances, hopes are dim for the sea turtles hatchlings born on Palm Beach County beaches. For a variety of reasons, only about 1 percent of the about 1.3 million born on Palm Beach County 's shores survive.

Once baby turtles break out of their shells, dig out of the sand and emerge onto the beach, their little bodies have a finite amount of energy left to make the trek across the sand, into the surf and out to sea.

Ideally they are born at night, which helps them avoid raccoons and other predators. If so, they rely on the light from the night sky bouncing off the water to guide them out to sea.

But too often, a man-made glow to the west lures the turtles in the wrong direction, over dunes and into streets. Turtle monitors sometimes arrive in the morning to see tiny turtle tracks leading from the nest, in the opposite direction of the ocean.

"They are not going to make it," said Daniel Bates, county environmental director. "They have only so much energy. Most of the time, they are just lost."

There were at least 12,000 disoriented sea turtles in Palm Beach County last year. That number is far lower than actual occurrences because volunteers can't keep tabs on all turtle nests at all times to see what happens to the hatchlings, Bates said.

While coastal condominiums have learned to go dark, the glow of street lights, shopping centers and other and brightly illuminated inland parking lots are creating the glow so dangerous to sea turtles, Bates said.

The new target for turning down the lights at night stretches three to five miles from the coast.

The first step takes aim at new construction. The county is working with cities to change building codes to require lighting fixtures with targeted beams that limit the spillover glow.

The next step would be encouraging retrofits of existing lights shining on large parking lots.

For public outreach, the county is using bus signs, brochures, stickers and even temporary tattoos with the message "Dark Skies Save Sea Turtles' Lives."

County officials expect it to take years to spread the message and push back the urban glow far enough for turtles to be able to focus on the natural nighttime shine off the water.

"We've gone a long way with dealing with direct light on the beach," Bates said. "But we are still getting (turtle) disorientation because of the sky glow behind it."

Florida Atlantic University's new football stadium in Boca Raton was a surprising source of potentially disorienting light for turtle hatchlings.

Extra illumination used for around-the clock construction needed to get the stadium ready for last year's football season was reaching the beach.

The city worked with FAU to add light shields to keep more that light directed onto the stadium.

Car dealerships in Delray Beach and Boca Raton are prime examples of businesses that aren't on the waterfront but still have lights affecting the beach, said Jennifer Bistyga, who administers Boca Raton coastal projects.

In addition to a public awareness campaign, local government could consider offering tax-reduction incentives to businesses that take on the additional expense of retrofitting lights to make them more turtle-friendly, Bistyga said.

Businesses that take steps to limit "light trespass" could also be recognized with awards or designations acknowledging their environmentally-friendly efforts.

"They are not going to make these changes on their own," Bistyga said. "The bottom line is money."

abreid@tribune.com , 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews


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