Lights out for loggerheads: City holds open house ahead of turtle nesting season

Lance Shearer
City environmental planner Tonia Selmeski explains turtle regulations. The City of Marco Island held an open house on Wednesday to promote protecting sea turtles that lay their eggs on island beaches.

Sea turtle nesting season officially begins May 1, and  monitors are patrolling Marco Island’s beaches. And while the turtle monitors scan the sand for signs of turtle crawls and nests, MIPD officers will be looking toward the land to ensure beachfront residences comply with lighting restrictions.

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Sea turtles like the loggerhead, or caretta caretta, the species most commonly nesting locally, typically return to their “natal beach,” the same spot they were hatched, to lay their own eggs decades later. That means the turtle mothers swimming ashore to dig their nests and lay their eggs are likely return visitors to Marco Island, and unlike most human residents, were born – or hatched – on the island.

They have survived some daunting odds to get back here. It’s estimated that only one in a thousand sea turtles, the ones that do successfully hatch, survive to maturity. They fall prey to a host of predators, including raccoons, crabs, fish, and seabirds. Ants can wipe out a nest before the eggs ever get the chance to hatch.

Humans can harm the turtles as well, by digging holes in the sand that trap turtles, disturbing mothers so they abandon the attempt to nest, resulting in a “false crawl,” and especially by disorienting turtles with beachfront lighting.

Turtle hatchlings are released to head for the Gulf in this file photo. The City of Marco Island held an open house on Wednesday to promote protecting sea turtles that lay their eggs on island beaches.

“If you dig a hole at the beach, fill it in” before you leave, said Maura Kraus, principal environmental specialist for Collier County. “Adult turtles or hatchlings can get trapped; they could even cause an accident for the ATVs” used by beach monitors. “Don’t follow turtles – watch them from a distance. And flashlights are a big no-no.”

The biggest no-no is residential lighting shining over the beach during nesting season. Community service officers (CSOs) of the MIPD, led by supervisor Keith Richter, enforce the regulations. Along with

“From the beginning of May through October, all lights off or drapes closed by 9 p.m. unless they’re turtle-compliant,” said MIPD CSO Andy Lindenmuth. “The MIPD patrols the beach at night, and will issue notices of violation or non-compliance. The second time within a year goes automatically to the magistrate.”

MIPC community service officers Ira Warder, from left, Andy Lindenmuth, and supervisor Keith Richter compare notes. The City of Marco Island held an open house on Wednesday to promote protecting sea turtles that lay their eggs on island beaches.

Unlike sea turtles, the ordinance has teeth. Fines start at $250, said the CSOs, and last year about 30 to 40 were imposed on repeat offenders. To avoid beachfront property owners being cited, the City of Marco Island held an open house on Wednesday, April 21 to educate islanders and hand out literature on how to help sea turtles thrive.

Tonia Selmeski, environmental planner for the city, and Collier County turtle monitor Samantha Arner joined the police officers in talking to the public, the few of them who showed up. The city’s handout specified steps beachgoers and property owners can take.

County turtle monitor Samantha Arner hands out literature. The City of Marco Island held an open house on Wednesday to promote protecting sea turtles that lay their eggs on island beaches.

 “To decrease disorientation of sea turtles: Turn off all unnecessary lights. Close blinds and curtains. Shield light sources. Apply window tint to windows. Don’t use decorative landscape lighting on the beach side. Plant vegetation buffers between light sources and the beach. Don’t use flashlights or flash photography on the beach at night.” Additionally, said the flyer, all beach furniture, equipment, and garbage should be removed from the beach every night.

“I coordinate with property owners. We email condos and hotels from Hideaway to Cape Marco,” said Selmeski, “with tips and reminders as well as the current ordinance.” The city is looking at updating their turtle protection ordinance to reflect changes in the FWC model ordinance, she said, but there is no firm timeframe when changes might take effect.

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In a time when much environmental news is bad news, sea turtle conservation efforts have been a notable success story, said Kraus. “We’ve seen a tremendous increase since we started monitoring Marco Island in 1989. Then, there were only 15 to 30 nests, and now we see around 100, a threefold increase.”

In 2020, Marco reported 94 nests established, and 161 false crawls. Each mother turtle will nest multiple times over the course of the summer, and approximately 60 nights after the eggs are buried, the hatchlings will emerge and begin their precarious dash for the water. Nesting season officially runs through Oct. 31.