By Chad Stephen Boda
Despite several joint meetings like the one held on Tuesday between Flagler County and Flagler Beach officials, the fight over how to fix Flagler’s beaches continues and the final solution remains elusive. The discussion so far is focused on roads, rock revetments, sand renourishment and dune replacement. It’s bypassing turtle protection. It shouldn’t.
A sobering fact: As of 2016, before Hurricane Matthew struck, over 80 percent of Florida’s sandy beaches were considered critically eroded, and this trend is expected to worsen over time. So is the long-term decline of sea turtle nesting in Florida and Flagler. For example, total annual loggerhead sea turtle nests in Florida declined by 25 percent between 1989 and 2007.
Post-Matthew attention is focused on how to fix State Road A1A, with the state Department of Transportation (FDOT) favoring seawalls and Flagler Beach residents categorically opposed. Citizens and elected officials voiced well-known concerns about the potential problems that would come with replacing the natural sand dune with a concrete wall.
The concerns expressed at the emergency meeting in October mirrored similar criticisms raised against previous FDOT plans in 2010, when the department proposed an extension of the city’s relatively small but dreaded seawall along south A1A, around South 13th Street. The city passed a formal resolution in 2011 strongly rejecting the FDOT seawall plans, largely on environmental grounds.
The FDOT, however, seems to be doubling down on the seawall approach. At the recently held open-house on long-term solutions to fixing A1A, four of the six projects presented by the FDOT included not only a seawall (or “retention” wall, as they call it), but a 5.2 mile long seawall.
That may fly in the face of sea-turtle protection.
Back in October’s emergency meeting, Casey Lyon, a biology expert working with the FDOT, reassured concerned citizens and elected officials that any FDOT projects would sufficiently address environmental concerns. As far as the long-term effects on sea turtles, she explained, “we actually have a Biological Opinion in place that’s current, that covers these areas where we are proposing the seawall. So, as long as we follow the conditions within the Biological Opinion, it will be ok from an agency standpoint.” Biological Opinions are based on federal environmental standards and are required by all state and federal agencies. The Army Corps’ Biological Opinion, for example, was last updated in February 2015 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Read it in full here) However, the state transportation department is still basing its assumptions on an older analysis.
The state transportation department seemed to imply that dumping rocks and building seawalls would not have serious impacts on threatened or endangered sea turtles and their nesting habitat. So, nothing to worry about, right?
Far from clearing the state of causing any environmental harm, the Biological Opinion actually documented severe problems with the local beach that have already resulted from the state dumping rocks and raising seawalls, and that these problems would continue as long as the rocks and seawalls stayed in place.
The federal study found that the existing FDOT rock revetment and seawall section, as well as the proposed extension of the seawall, amounts to what is known as a “take” of listed sea turtle species. Under the Endangered Species Act, “take” means to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct,” which includes obstructing nesting behavior or degrading important nesting habitat.
The federal agency originally determined that the transportation department’s plans harmed sea turtles in 2003. This was based on the way rock revetments interfered with essential sea turtle breeding behavior, preventing turtles from laying eggs for lack of suitable nesting locations or because of obstructions.
For example, after the transportation department extended and rebuilt parts of the rock revetment in southern Flagler Beach after the 1999 hurricane season, U.S. Fish and Wildlife monitored the effects of the new infrastructure on sea turtle nesting behavior. After the first full year of monitoring, the Fish and Wildlife found that the new rock revetment interfered with 68 percent of the loggerhead emergences onto the beach in the area, and that the number of loggerhead turtle nests in front of the revetment in 2000 was significantly lower than in other parts of Flagler Beach.
They also found that the nesting success rate in front of the revetment was only 25 percent, compared to a nesting success rate of 65 percent for other Flagler Beach areas that year. Typically, nesting success rates lower than 50 percent indicate some type of interference with the ability for sea turtles to nest.
Other studies conducted by, for example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found similar negative effects of hard infrastructure on sea turtle nesting behavior and nest and hatchling success.
Potentially negative effects of the transportation department’s proposed actions on listed sea turtles identified by Fish and Wildlife include:
- Behavior modification of nesting females due to the presence of armoring structures resulting in false crawls.
- Displacement of nesting turtles into nesting habitat that is sub-optimal.
- An increase in the physiological cost of nesting.
- A possible decrease in nesting activity.
- Entrapment or mortality of nesting turtles and hatchlings.
- Washout or inundation of eggs laid seaward of revetments or seawalls.
Despite these well documented negative effects, Fish and Wildlife ultimately determined that the FDOT’s rocks and seawalls were “not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the loggerhead sea turtle, green sea turtle, and leatherback sea turtle… and no destruction or adverse modification of critical habitats are expected.”
After describing the numerous detrimental effects of hard infrastructure to listed sea turtles, this conclusion may come as a surprise. But there are two important things to point out about how Fish and Wildlife came to this decision, which help to qualify this seemingly contradictory conclusion.
First, the idea that the proposed actions are “not likely to jeopardize the continued existence” of listed sea turtles makes sense once we understand that Fish and Wildlife considers the impacts of seawalls and revetments on the entire global population of these listed species, not just the turtles in Flagler Beach. All three sea turtle species considered in the federal assessment, including the endangered leatherback sea turtle, endangered green sea turtle, and threatened loggerhead sea turtle, have subpopulations spread throughout the world. This means that, while there will likely be severe negative effects to sea turtle nesting habitat and behavior at the local level in Flagler Beach resulting from transportation department activities, these local effects will not directly result in the loss of the listed species as a whole. (Put another way: the destruction of sea turtles in Flagler Beach is OK because the overall population of sea turtles won’t be significantly affected. That makes Flagler Beach’s sea turtles expendable.)
Fair enough. But the loss of nesting habitat from coastal armoring is one of the most significant causes of sea turtle decline throughout the world. In Florida, Fish and Wildlife points to the loss of nesting habitat related to coastal development as having had the greatest impact on nesting sea turtles throughout the state. Given that Florida hosts , the collective effects of the loss of sea turtle habitat at the local level add up to much larger problems over time, even if no particular action may lead to the loss of the entire species.
Second, the fact that the Fish and Wildlife expects “no destruction or adverse modification to critical habitats” also makes sense once we understand that in 2009, when the federal study was completed, there was no critical habitat for any of the listed species designated in the continental United States. The absence of designated critical habitat of course means that any proposed actions by the state transportation department will not affect the non-existent critical habitat.
However, since 2009, Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Department of the Interior have designated critical habitat in Florida for the threatened loggerhead sea turtle. The new critical habitat was designated in 2014 through a final decision filed in the Federal Register. Nearly 70 percent of the 685 miles designated as critical loggerhead sea turtle habitat along the U.S. eastern seaboard are located in coastal Florida. This includes the entire coastline of Flagler County.
Both the increased length (from 5,000 feet to 5.2 miles) of the seawall being proposed and the recent designation of critical habitat for the loggerhead sea turtle in Flagler County raise important questions about the applicability of the Biological Opinion being used by the state transportation department for post-Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts. There is, for example, a federal requirement for renewing consultation with Fish and Wildlife if the conditions under which the original Biological Opinion was written have changed.
The increased length of the newly proposed seawall and the newly designated critical habitat for the threatened loggerhead sea turtle surely count as changes in project conditions.
As a result, the Biological Opinion used by the transportation department to justify its future plans to stabilize A1A in Flagler Beach should require the renewing of formal consultation between the federal and state agency to ensure that future project actions will not violate the federal Endangered Species Act or any other protections on listed sea turtle species.
At the same time, alternative actions, such as completely relocating A1A away from the beach, should continue to be seriously considered as viable options.
Chad Stephen Boda, a former resident of Flagler Beach, is a doctoral candidate at the Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies in Sweden. Reach him by email here.