By DOTTY NIST
Property owners and other members of the public had the chance to learn about impacts of beachfront lighting on native species at a Jan. 29 workshop hosted by Walton County.
The workshop took place at the Walton County District 5 Office in Grayton Beach.
In 2009, Walton County adopted the Wildlife Lighting Ordinance to regulate outdoor lighting in order to mimimize negative impacts on threatened and endangered native sea turtles that nest along the Walton County coast.
Lisa Lehnhoff, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, provided an overview on these ancient reptiles and the survival challenges that they face.
Lehnhoff explained that sea turtles reach maturity between the ages of 20 and 40. However, she said, only one out of 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings lives to reach maturity. Young sea turtles are a food source for many other species. Among other threats to sea turtle survival, she noted, are entanglement, ingestion of debris such as plastic and fishing lines, disease, and loss of habitat.
Lehnhoff said the goal is to find a balance between protection of sea turtles and encouraging progress in beachfront areas.
Bright exterior lighting in areas where sea turtles nest, Lehnhoff told attendees, may deter female sea turtles from nesting or may disorient them while they are trying to return to the water after nesting. It may also disorient hatchlings, who have only a limited amount of energy to get them to the water and who are particularly vulnerable to predators if they remain on land too long. Hatchlings may also dehydrate if they are delayed in reaching the water, Lehnhoff noted.
Escambia County does not have a sea turtle lighting ordinance, Lehnhoff said, and there is a resulting 50-percent disorientation rate among hatchlings.
She explained that sea turtles may lay up to five nests per years, with 100 to 150 eggs per nest.
Kelly Roberts, an environmental specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, discussed the “three golden rules” for turtle-friendly lighting, keep it low, keep it shielded and keep it long.
“Keep it low” signifies that the fixture should be mounted as low to the ground as possible in order to minimize light trespass, and the lowest amount of light to serve the purpose should be used. “Keep it shielded” means what it says, that the source of light should be fully shielded in order to prevent it from being visible from the beach. “Keep it long” means that long-wavelength lighting, which is amber or red in color, should be used in appropriate fixtures.
Roberts explained that sea turtles are not attracted to amber or red lighting but are attracted to blue or green light wavelengths, which tend to cause disorientation.
Walton County’s Wildlife Lighting Ordinance requires that property owners along the beach ensure that their exterior lighting does not directly or indirectly illuminate the beach.
While Walton County does allow low-cost yellow “bug bulbs” along the beach, Roberts said LED lighting is actually best. If bug bulbs are used, the compact fluorescent ones are preferable, she noted.
“We’re not asking for no light, we just want light well managed,” Roberts said.
Options for retrofitting existing lighting that illuminates the beach, Roberts explained, include shielding the light source or adding vegetation between the light source and the beach.
Some companies specialize in turtle-friendly lighting. Mike Garrity of the Argent LED company was present with examples of turtle-friendly lighting fixtures offered by his business.
There was discussion on the use of flashlights on the beach. Roberts emphasized that only red-light flashlights must be used. These are available for purchase online. Beach Code Enforcement Officer Jeff McVay also noted that red lens covers for flashlights are available at the TDC Visitor Center.
Scott Caraway of Walton County Public Works Environmental Resources commented that the Walton County Wildlife Lighting Ordinance is “a work in progress,” and that the county is aware that not all properties are in compliance with its requirements. McVay said he has been working with property owners along the beach to get their lighting into compliance, beginning with the areas that are the most “glowing bright” in the evening.
Members of the South Walton Turtle Watch, which monitors sea turtle nesting in Walton County, were in attendance at the workshop.
Information on turtle-friendly lighting and the Walton County Wildlife Lighting Ordinance are available by calling Walton County Public Works Environmental Resources at 892-8108.