Florida's Sea Turtles Besieged

Seven species of sea turtles inhabit the world's oceans. These air-breathing reptiles have survived virtually unchanged for 200 million years. Sea turtles are unique among marine animals because they must return to land to reproduce; they lay their eggs on tropical, sandy shores. These amazing animals have outlived the dinosaurs, yet now they are threatened with extinction due to the actions of humans. Nowhere are the threats to their survival more evident than on Florida's beaches.

Florida hosts more sea-turtle nesting than anywhere else in the continental United States. The Western Hemisphere's largest colony of loggerhead turtles nests on Florida's coast, along with large numbers of green and leatherback turtles. But Florida's beaches are in trouble -- from poorly sited coastal development, sea-wall construction, repetitive beach nourishment, increasingly strong storms, and rising sea levels. Sixty percent of Florida's beaches are eroding, and 46 percent are "critically eroding," meaning upland structures already are under eminent threat. Sea turtles now struggle to find a suitable nesting habitat.

The continued development of Florida's coastline and the engineering tactics used to protect structures from erosion combine to threaten the health of the beaches that sea turtles need to reproduce. The most widely used erosion-fighting tactics include coastal armoring (sea walls) and repetitive sand-dredging projects to rebuild beaches. Public subsidies, including redevelopment assistance, taxpayer-backed coastal-wind insurance, federal flood insurance, and publicly financed beach-building projects encourage development along even the most erosive beaches. Loopholes in Florida's coastal-building laws allow development to the seaward-most "line of construction," regardless of erosion rates or beach width. A series of regulatory loopholes to accommodate private-property rights even allows homes to be built seaward of the 30-year erosion line -- the area coastal regulators anticipate will be underwater before an average mortgage can be retired.

Florida established its coastal regulatory program in 1986. It was intended to balance development and private-property rights with the need to protect the coastal system by controlling the location and design of structures. However, nearly half the beachfront homes constructed under the regulatory program now sit on critically eroded beaches. The balance clearly has shifted in favor of risky development at the expense of beach protection.

Florida's sea turtles are being squeezed between rampant shoreline development and increasing coastal erosion. Their long-term survival depends on a comprehensive reform of Florida's coastal-management policies. Stronger building setbacks are needed to restrict development adjacent to eroding beaches. Creative policies are needed to promote "strategic relocation" of existing development away from the eroding shore. These strategies could include aggressive land purchasing, transfer of development rights, easements to restrict sea-wall construction, and tax incentives to relocate landward. Public subsidies encouraging high-risk and damaging coastal development should be eliminated or should include restrictions on repeat claims and prohibitions against building seaward of the 30-year erosion line.

Time is running out to make the sort of policy changes needed to ensure the long-term protection and sustainability of Florida's beaches -- for the well-being of sea turtles and people.