By DOTTY NIST
“We need your help,” South Walton Turtle Watch volunteer Bobby Stuart told county commissioners. The request for help was spurred by what Stuart termed an “extraordinary” sea turtle nesting season taking place on Walton County’s beaches.
Stuart’s remarks came at the July 10 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
Stuart explained that there is widespread noncompliance with Walton County’s Wildlife Lighting Ordinance by properties on the beaches. This ordinance, approved in 2009, sets requirements for lighting along the beach in order to minimize negative impacts on the nesting of threatened and endangered sea turtles and on other native beach species.
Volunteers have marked a record number of sea turtle nests this year. Stuart reported that baby sea turtles are ready to begin hatching by the hundreds from these nests. He noted that turtle watch volunteers will have to put in additional man-hours to monitor that hatching. Sea turtle eggs generally hatch in the evening. Non-turtle friendly lighting along the beach often has the effect of drawing sea turtle hatchlings landward, since they instinctively move from a darker to a brighter area. On an undeveloped beach, the brighter area would be the gulf in which the night sky is reflected. This disorientation has been a major cause of the death of hatchlings.
Stuart noted that only one code enforcement officer is assigned to the beach. He urged the commissioners to see that more enforcement is provided.
“Extinction really is forever,” Stuart emphasized. He highlighted the importance of Walton County as a nesting area for sea turtles. Stuart said that volunteers see half or two-thirds the number of “false crawls” as compared with turtle nests. These are instances in which a female sea turtle comes onshore and returns to the gulf without nesting. False crawls can be the result of non-compliant lighting or obstruction by chairs or other items left on the beach at night, which is the time when nesting usually occurs.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander told Stuart that she had participated in a meeting earlier that day at which the things he had brought up had been discussed. She added that the Habitat Conservation Plan that the county had submitted to the state includes provisions for the regulation of bonfires during sea turtle nesting season. Those provisions are to take effect upon approval of the plan by the state, she said.
Comander added that another meeting was planned for later in the week to look at “myriad” needs for code enforcement. She said the meeting was to include Walton County Planning Director Wayne Dyess, along with representatives of the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) and the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC).
Comander observed that there are more tourists on the beaches this year. Stuart responded that visitors return to Walton County because of its “unspoiled beauty.” He expressed confidence that both tourism and sea turtles could thrive in Walton County. “It can be done,” he said, since other areas have been successful in harmonizing the two.
Stuart was critical of Walton County’s Wildlife Lighting Ordinance and urged that the county look at ordinances established in other coastal areas.
TDC Executive Director Dawn Moliterno noted that the TDC’s beach ambassador had started work earlier in the week. The ambassador speaks with people on the beach to educate them on the importance of not leaving chairs and other items on the beach and of minimizing artificial light on the beach in the evening.
“Please tell them to turn their lights off,” Stuart urged.
“We do,” Moliterno replied.