BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. — Specialty license plates from across the State of Florida are helping to shed light on the problem of light pollution for newly hatched sea turtles.
Melbourne-based Stella Maris Environmental Research has studied an increase in what they describe as disoriented hatchlings that are having a difficult time finding their way to the Atlantic Ocean.
“I won’t throw any local areas under the bus, but we have seen a lot of these starbursts, which means that I’ve seen hatchlings going in 360-degree angles,” Ashley Miller Chelberg said. “It means that they’re going everywhere and that basically tells us that the lighting environment in that area is not conducive for hatchlings who need to make it to the ocean.”
Miller Chelberg, a biological research scientist and founding president of SMER, was part of a team that included seven marine biologists that conducted 123 hours of measuring hatchling orientation.
The group surveyed more than 30,000 hatchlings across three locations in Brevard County. She said the data they are gathering is picking up on research that was dormant for practically 30 years in this part of Florida.
A description of the summer’s work on the SMER website states that they “are accepting support to supplement our grant for a ‘Temporal Analysis of Hatchling Orientation’ on Brevard County beaches from 1993, 1994 to recent years, which also includes determination of the light environment during nesting hours from Patrick [Space] Force Base to Sebastian Inlet.”
The referenced grant is from the Sea Turtles Grant Program, a collection of funds generated by drivers who paid extra for a sea turtle license plate. The SMER research project investigating lighting effects on hatchling orientation received a total of $15,470 across two award cycles.
The organization also received a $1,300 grant during the 2019-2020 funding cycle to purchase equipment supporting guided night walks to observe sea turtles.
“I know we’ve made great strides in lighting improvements here and there’s a lot of very aware citizens, unfortunately what we’re seeing is tremendous amounts of habitat degradation due to lighting,” Miller Chelberg said. “And that’s causing, unfortunately, tens of thousands of hatchlings to meet their doom.”
She said that a number of governing bodies, like Brevard County, the City of Satellite Beach and Florida Fish and Wildlife have made good efforts, but added that with a growing new population to the state, more education is needed and perhaps new regulations down the road.
“We’re working on creating that cohesive group. So, getting everyone to have that conversation about coastal lighting management and how we can all work together to reform or enhance the beach environment that is acceptable for sea turtles, so that they can survive,” Miller Chelberg said.