UF Extension fights for wildlife during National Clean Beaches Week
By Rebecca Burton
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While Florida is known for its pristine beaches, endangered species still rely on residents and visitors to keep their habitat clean. In celebration of National Clean Beaches Week (July 1-7), University of Florida IFAS Extension agents are encouraging beachgoers to pick up their litter for the sake of the state’s beauty and wildlife.
According to Ken Gioeli, a UF/IFAS Extension St. Lucie County agent, pristine shorelines not only benefit visitors, but also aid some of the state’s most admired wildlife—especially sea turtles.
Adult sea turtles live in the ocean, but females return to the shore to lay their eggs beneath the sand. It is important that these nests remain undisturbed during the two-month incubation period, Gioeli said. When the eggs hatch, the tiny turtles emerge from the sand and begin their nighttime crawl back into the ocean.
Three sea turtle species that often nest in Florida include the leatherback, the loggerhead and the green turtle, all of which are listed as endangered or threatened. With nesting season running from March to October in many Florida coastal communities, there are several steps you can take to ensure your beach day doesn’t interfere with hatchlings trying to make it to their new ocean home, Gioeli said.
Rule number one is picking up all trash and placing it into wildlife-resistant trash receptacles.
“Leatherback sea turtles eat jellyfish. If they see a plastic bag floating in the ocean, they could mistake it for jellyfish and eat it. That could plug up their entire digestive and reproductive system,” said Gioeli, who has been working on keeping beaches sea-turtle friendly since 1993.
“They can get entangled in monofilament fishing line and lose a limb. Food wrappers left on the beach can attract mammals such as raccoons and feral dogs,” Gioeli said. “These animals can also dig up sea turtle nests.”
But, when picking up your debris, be careful not to mistake sea turtle nest markings for trash. Nests are sometimes marked with a sign and surrounded with wooden stakes.
“Please remember that those stakes on the beaches are not trash or throw sticks and should be left alone,” Gioeli said. “Biologists use those stakes for sea turtle nest surveying.”
Obstacles such as holes in the sand and sandcastles should be removed because they can become obstacles for sea turtles, Gioeli said. For property owners, it is also imperative that furniture is stored away properly overnight as sea turtles have been known to become entangled and die, he said.
Sea turtles also need darkness. Too much light can cause a hatchling to become disoriented on its journey to the water. Beachfront property and business owners should be sure to follow the lighting codes in their region.
Gioeli said the best way to ensure a clean beach for your family and the wildlife is to make picking up trash routine.
“I bring an extra reusable bag with me and make it a habit of picking up trash,” he said. “Needles, monofilament fishing line, straws and cups and plastic bags are examples of items I have picked up while on a beach walk. You would not want either you, your children or a protected sea turtle stepping on any of that.”
If you’re not enamored by a sea turtle’s cuteness, Gioeli said at the very least, a healthy sea turtle population can lower your chance of being stung by a pesky jellyfish.
“In those situations, I just remind people that giant leatherback sea turtles eat jellyfish. That’s fewer jellyfish that are likely to sting them and their families,” Gioeli said.
Click here to see a video about Clean Beaches Week.
Want to help raise awareness about the importance of clean beaches and sea turtles? A 12-inch by 19- inch, full-color sea turtle nesting poster is now available for just $4 at the UF/IFAS bookstore. The poster informs beachgoers and property owners about the simple things they can do to help give sea turtles a fighting chance.
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.