Florida environmentalists claimed a major victory this week when Indian River County and other parties signed a settlement in which the County agreed to develop a habitat conservation plan to protect endangered and threatened sea turtles. The controversy concerned the damage to sea turtle nesting caused by sea walls. Because sea turtles dig nests and deposit their eggs on beaches, turtles are unable to dig nests where seawalls and other forms of “coastal armoring” are placed on beaches. Armoring can also lead to additional erosion of turtle nesting habitat down the beach.
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund — the nation’s largest public interest environmental law firm — challenged the County’s emergency permitting program for sea walls in April of last year on behalf of the Sea Turtle Survival League, a program of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation — the world’s oldest sea turtle research and conservation group. The lawsuit challenged an emergency permit issued by Indian River County because the permit violated the state’s coastal construction rules and because it resulted in a “take” of sea turtles. After lengthy negotiations, the County and affected homeowners this past week signed a settlement agreement with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Sea Turtle Survival League, in which the County agreed to develop a habitat conservation in accordance with the federal Endangered Species Act. The League will put its legal challenge on hold pending completion of the conservation plan.
“The County is going to comply with federal law protecting endangered species,” said Ansley Samson, an attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. “Hopefully, this means that parties can cooperate in protecting the endangered sea turtles and we won’t need to return to court.”
“The HCP will require the state, the county and homeowners to come to terms with how sea walls must be regulated to protect sea turtles,” said David Godfrey, Executive Director of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation. “Florida hosts the world’s second largest population of threatened loggerhead turtles, and virtually all of the nesting by endangered green and leatherback turtles takes place in Florida. For these species to survive, Florida must protect its globally important sea turtle nesting beaches. This HCP is a major step in that direction.”
Because all species of marine turtles are either threatened or endangered, any activity that eliminates or reduces reproductive success poses a significant threat to the survival of the species. Such activities can only be allowed under specific provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act and state law that tracks that federal law.