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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Long Slow March to the Sea

Air Date: Week of

Sometimes, attempts to save endangered species can cause more problems than they solve. Daniel Grossman reports on one example from the Florida coast. There, efforts to save four species of sea turtles from human encroachment have had some unforeseen results.


CURWOOD: There are nearly a thousand plants and animals in the United States that biologists fear may be going extinct. Prompt action is necessary to save them, but it has to be the right action if it's going to succeed.

Sometimes, attempted rescues can cause more problems than they solve. For example on the Florida coast, four species of sea turtles face possible extinction as their nesting grounds are paved over and turned into shorefront homes. But as Daniel Grossman reports, efforts to help the turtles have had some unforeseen results.

(VOICES: Look at 'em all, look at 'em.)

GROSSMAN: It's after midnight on a Florida beach just north of Fort Lauderdale. A crowd has gathered to see one of nature's most remarkable spectacles: a nest of sea turtles hatching, known as an irruption.

CHILD: They're all coming out!

ADULT: Please turn that light off.

GROSSMAN: The nest contained about 100 leathery eggs laid 6 weeks ago by a loggerhead sea turtle. Earlier today, the eggs hatched, and the tiny hatchlings are digging up through the warm sand. A motionless mass of hatchlings is visible by moonlight. Suddenly the pile begins to quiver and a dozen or more turtles scramble for the surf.

MAN: Wow!

WOMAN: I mean this is incredible!

GROSSMAN: The frail infants paddle for the Gulf Stream, just off shore, which will carry them past Europe and Africa. Miraculously, when they're ready to lay their own eggs, in a decade or so, they'll come back possibly to this very beach. But environmentalist Bob Worshoven says loggerheads, and smaller populations of 3 other turtle species; Leatherback, Hawksbill and Green, are severely threatened.

WORSHOVEN: I've seen them run over on the highways. I've collected them up in buckets, I've put the survivors in the water. I've done necropsies on the ones that are hit by boats, the ones that have been shot, the ones that have had fish hooks caught in the gut. Eventually it does get to you.

GROSSMAN: The chief threat to the turtles results from a behavior for finding the surf ill-suited to densely developed regions like the coast here in Broward County. Newly hatched turtles orient themselves by following the reflection of moonlight and starlight off the sea. But security lights and lit windows of shore-front buildings confuse hatchlings. Homes and tall condominiums line the water's edge here like a steel and concrete canyon wall. Jeanette Wyneken, a biologist at Florida Atlantic University says disoriented turtles climb into swimming pools and parking lots or crawl aimlessly until exhausted.

WYNEKEN: We've followed hatchlings that have gone down toward condo lights that've gone half a mile. And then they eventually crawl up on the dune or end up on the road. Either way they're pretty much dead turtles.

GROSSMAN: In order to protect the turtles, workers relocate nests from populated areas to less developed beaches. In Broward County, nests from practically the entire coastline are squeezed into 6 plots, each the size of a large vegetable garden. Like gardens, the hatcheries are marked with wooden stakes. These stakes represent a crop of more that 100 thousand eggs harvested from some 20 miles of shore. By collecting the eggs into hatcheries, fewer shoreline property owners are affected. But even here it's been tough to get some landowners to cooperate. Last summer one hatchery was located behind the condo of Jim Uebelhart.

UEBELHART: Our people are not too happy with the whole project of taking care of the turtles on our beach.

GROSSMAN: Why aren't they happy? What's the problem?

UEBELHART: They've made a kind of cemetery. It's like Normandy beach out there. Except they're not white crosses.

GROSSMAN: What does it look like?

UEBELHART: Have you not seen them?


UEBELHART: Well I think you should come out and have a look. Let's look around.

GROSSMAN: Uebelhart leads the way around his blue and white concrete low rise to a narrow strip of sand.

UEBELHART: See what they've done here with the stakes. As far as I know each one of those stakes represents a nest of eggs. And at this stage the eggs are hatching and the turtles are either bound for the ocean or other parts.

GROSSMAN: But displeased abutters on shore may not be the turtles' worst problem. When biologist Jeanette Wyneken began studying hatcheries, she realized that the reception off shore was even more hostile.

WYNEKEN: When we shined a light out in the water it was a sea of eyeballs looking back at us.

GROSSMAN: Two years ago, Wyneken began to wonder if predators had discovered that hatcheries were a plentiful food source.

WYNEKEN: So then we went fishing and caught some of these fish, and looked to see what they were eating. And 75 percent of the fish were eating baby turtles.

GROSSMAN: With rods and reels, and the help of expert fishermen, Wyneken landed barracuda, tarpon, snapper and other fish. She tagged some and dissected others to determine their diet. Wyneken will continue her study this summer. But already she wonders if the country's helping hands could be harming the turtles.

WYNEKEN: If you put a hatchery out without knowing what's going to happen to the hatchlings once they get in the water, you may be just wasting our money. You may be just feeding the fish.

GROSSMAN: Someday, says Wyneken, her research could teach wildlife managers how to relocate nests so turtles hatch in a pattern predators can't discern. But environmentalist Bob Worshoven says the best solution is the one that least disturbs the turtles' natural patterns.

WORSHOVEN: I think the best policy would be to leave nests in situ. Allow turtles to do what they've done for millions of years, and modify the human environment around that. Sea turtles need some type of lighting modification in the form of an ordinance, which would encourage people to limit their lights, or perhaps modify their lights to a less harmful intensity or type.

GROSSMAN: Lighting ordinances do protect turtles in some Florida counties. But in Broward County, where people are more concerned about crime than endangered species, proposals to regulate outdoor lights have never been popular. Bob Worshoven and other environmentalists say in the long term, the best hope for the turtles is a public that has experienced them first hand and that understands their predicament.

WORSHOVEN: I think the animals probably will survive. Whether they survive in numbers that they were ever at in previous years is questionable. But I do believe they will make it. With some help.

WOMAN: Is that one lost?

WOMAN: Yeah, that's all one nest.

CHILD: This one's in the lead.

MAN: Okay, place your bets.

GROSSMAN: Back at the turtle irruption, amazed adults and delighted children are watching the stragglers. Soon the hatchlings will be swept into ocean currents. When they return as adults, these children will be adults as well. With luck, says Worshoven, they'll remember this night and will give these striking animals the help they need. For Living On Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.

CHILD: I bet fifty dollars on this one! It's a race.


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