Save the Turtles: The Misguided, Misinformed, and Misdirected Battle for Hillsboro Lighthouse

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The knotted, convoluted public debate over how to protect sea turtles from the light of Hillsboro Lighthouse would make Joseph Heller blush. Groups all over the place -- including the Broward County Commission -- are drafting resolutions "supporting the continuation of Hillsboro Light as a safe navigation aid," and the Sun-Sentinel published an article last month outlining how turtle folks want to extinguish "the venerable lighthouse" that has "stood vigil at Hillsboro Inlet, guiding mariners through a rocky and dangerous passage." The argument is that the lighthouse is a vital tool for mariners and you can't just turn it off for some turtles.

The argument is bullshit.

In reality, sea turtle advocates -- namely, Broward's Sea Turtle Oversight Protection (STOP) group -- aren't asking to turn out the lighthouse. All they want is a shield inside the lighthouse structure that prevents light from shining on the 1,500 feet of beach where the turtles are hatching.

Newly hatched sea turtles -- many of which are endangered species -- use the stars for clues about where the water is; because dunes block one side of the night sky, all they have to do is find the stars over the ocean and head that way to get home. Complications set in when human-generated light -- from homes, streets or, yes, lighthouses -- starts sending the baby turtles mixed messages about where to go. According to a 2010 study from STOP, almost 33 percent of the 27,000 turtles the group cataloged on Broward County beaches went the wrong way because of lights.

The public debate over what to do about the lighthouse is rooted in a Coast Guard inquiry into whether anything actually needs to be done -- they're accepting public comment until April 20, and at least two South Florida agencies are weighing in. The problem, though, is that the groups are writing resolutions with incomplete information.

The Coast Guard seems to have already decided how it feels about the issue: A letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from a Coast Guard official says that "the Coast Guard has determined that the Action may affect, but is not likely to adversely affect species and habitat protected under the [Endangered Species Act]."

It sent this letter along to the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND), which is in charge of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The group will vote on a resolution Saturday in which even the resolution's place on the group agenda misstates the situation: "Commissioner Chappell," it says, "requested that staff draft a resolution for submission to the U.S. Coast Guard supporting the continued operations of the Hillsboro Lighthouse."

(Again, STOP never said it wanted to turn off the lighthouse.)

​We called Commissioner Tyler Chappell; he said he hasn't seen any "scientific proof" that turtles were being affected. He got his information -- you guessed it -- from the Coast Guard, which sent along one STOP letter as proof of the other side's argument. But STOP says it's been sending the Coast Guard evidence of turtle harm for upward of two years.

We called Lt. Andrew Haley, the Coast Guard official in charge of obtaining public comment, to ask where the rest of it went. He said that he didn't know anything about it but that "there's no conclusive data either way" about turtle disorientation.

From what STOP is saying, however, there's plenty of proof.

"We buried them in emails. We snail-mailed it to them too," said STOP research analyst John Carlson. "They have overwhelming proof. They have everything except the dead bodies themselves, and that's only because we're not permitted to carry them to the Coast Guard. We've had the disorientation reports, file cabinets full of 'em."

Haley said the Coast Guard had to work with the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to figure out if there was actually an impact on sea turtles.

"At the same time [STOP was submitting data], I guess we hadn't heard anything official from any of the other governing agencies.. At some point, STOP probably did send those turtle disorientations in, but from the Coast Guard perspective, there isn't anything conclusive," Haley said, adding that "if there are disorientation reports, they are difficult to tie to Hillsboro Light."

According a disorientation report Carlson filed, the Hillsboro Lighthouse is the only light source in the area that could be causing turtle disorientation.

"I don't know how much more official you need," STOP founder Richard Whitecloud said. "That's my job. That's what I do."

In addition to documentation about turtle disorientations and death, STOP submitted to the Coast Guard a list of ten possible remedies that don't involve turning off the lighthouse; most are options for shading the section of beach directly below the lighthouse with metal shields or modified glass at the top of the lighthouse -- modifications, they say, like the one a condominium was granted to prevent light from shining in its windows. 

"It's so simple," Carlson said. "It's tantamount to closing your blinds."

The Broward County Commission is taking action one step further down the Chain of Passing Resolutions We Don't Really Understand: It was going to vote on a resolution today to support FIND's resolution but had to postpone the vote when it realized FIND hadn't actually passed anything yet.

Commissioner Chip LaMarca submitted the bill, which is quite literally a copy-paste job from the FIND resolution that blindly endorses whatever that group decides.

"The lighthouse is a historical landmark and has been in operation for 100 years, and there are no issues that can be reported to the best of our knowledge," said Ryan Saunders, LaMarca's legislative aide.

Unfortunately, "the best of our knowledge" seems to be a pretty low bar; when asked about specifics, Saunders said we'd be better off calling FIND but said the lighthouse "is still navigational tool and should be continued to be used as such."

Saunders was spouting the same alarmist "save the lighthouse" line that mobilized Chappell, and it appears LaMarca is onboard too: On the bill's agenda item, it says the resolution is necessary "due to a group trying to reduce operation of the Lighthouse."

The group, though, isn't the one that proposed reducing operations: Haley said the notion of turning off the lighthouse was put forward by the Coast Guard because, if it's determined to be the best course of action, that's what would happen.

For God's sake, people. Nobody wants to turn off the lighthouse.

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