January 20, 2023

Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law Blog

Protecting Sea Turtles from Coastal Development - Taylor Gordon


Protecting Sea Turtles from Coastal Development

Taylor Gordon




Coastal development has several impacts on sea turtles’ life cycle. Development encroaches on beaches where nesting sea turtles lay their eggs. Construction also causes  pollution from  runoff and litter which can pollute water near shore where sea turtles’ mate. Coastal development also causes ditches and bumps that make it difficult for females to navigate the beach and find a sufficient spot for their nest, while creating obstacles for the already vulnerable hatchlings. Finally, light pollution from coastal buildings and pathways confuses hatchlings who use the moonlight to navigate their way safely to the water – lights from construction and buildings can cause them to go the wrong way, ending up in roads and other dangerous spots. This blog asserts that courts should strictly enforce laws that protect sea turtles from direct harm and take and consider the serious impacts of development.  


Turtles and Beaches 

Beaches provide many ecosystem services, ranging from microscopic organisms to larger flora and fauna species. Beaches also provide wave dissipation and buffering against extreme weather, acting as a first line of defense against sea-level rise. The maintenance of nourished beaches is crucial because they provide important wildlife habitat for vegetation, seabirds, crabs, mollusks, and larger animals, such as sea turtles. Sea turtles spend much of their lives in the ocean; however, they do rely on beaches for important life events, i.e., nesting[1]. Not only do beaches supply turtles with habitat critical to their life cycle, but turtles’ use of beaches also provides important ecosystem benefits, such as prey for other species[2] and enriching the sandy beach with nutrients to ensure healthy vegetation[3]. If female turtles are no longer able to use a beach for nesting, the beach itself will lose these valuable services and sources. 


Coastal Development and Turtles

Coastal development is an anthropogenic activity that involves changing the landscape within sight of the coastline. This includes building structures on or near the coast for residential, commercial, and recreational purposes. Coastal development can also include beach renourishment and restoration, seawall construction, and nearshore dredging. These actions do have some benefits, specifically regarding political and tourism sectors, but through an environmental lens, there are many detrimental effects to this kind of development. These effects include encroachment on available nesting sites, structures that can block females from accessing the beach from the ocean, and pollution.



One of the most direct impacts coastal developments has on sea turtles is encroachment on the nesting beaches. As development and construction moves onto beaches, it takes away from the available nesting sites. Females return to the same beach they were born on, so as availability gets more limited, females get disoriented on where to lay theirclutches, sometimes resorting to dumping theireggs in the ocean, which means the entire clutch will be lost as they cannot incubate nor survive in water. 

Another type of encroachment that impacts sea turtles are hard structures created to protect beaches from harsh, eroding waves. Seawalls are impenetrable barriers that prevent female turtles from accessing the nesting beaches[4]. There are also cases where turtles can get up the beach during higher tides, but then get stuck behind the hard structures making them more at risk for predators, stress, and disorientation. 



Coastal development does not only impact turtles with the actual buildings and encroachment, but there is also pollution that comes from the development process and the aftermath, i.e., buildings and more anthropogenic activities. Three major points of pollution exacerbated by coastal development that impact sea turtles includewater pollution[5], land pollution[6], and light pollution[7]


What Can Be Done?

All species of sea turtles are listed as endangered or threatened under international, federal, state, and local laws so there are existing laws to protect them through all stages of their life cycle. The issue is that they need to be enforced more strongly and taken seriously by courts when cases are brought to them.  Below is a summary of some of the laws protecting sea turtles.  


On the state and local level, Florida has a high concentration of nesting turtles, so it has local and state laws to protect them. 



One prime example of a local ordinance is the Charlotte County Sea Turtle Protection Ordinance of Charlotte County, Florida. Section 3-5-298 directly addresses coastal construction conducted within the nesting zone during nesting season[8]. Section 3-5-299 addresses beachfront lighting, including light sources, in both new and existing development[9]. Essentially, all artificial, manmade lighting isto be “shielded such that no light source illuminates the nesting zone” and “tinted glass shall be installed on all windows facing the Gulf of Mexico” (Ord. No. 98-041, Section 4, 6-23-98). Other counties with nesting turtles should adopt similar lighting ordinances as soon as possible. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has mapped out all counties in Florida and whether there are current lighting ordinances in place – there are only 4 counties without lighting ordinances, but in all 4 of these counties there is at least one municipality with ordinances[10].

These two sections, if upheld responsibly, will help mitigate the potential harm caused by coastal development. In addition to the map, which shows light ordinances only, the FWC has every county/municipality listed with the specific sea turtle protection ordinances in place within their county lines, including both light ordinances and coastal construction in nesting zone ordinances[11].



Florida Statute 379.2431 is considered the Marine Turtle Protection Act and it includes a provision prohibiting ‘take’ of any sea turtle species. ‘Take’ is defined under the Act as an act that kills or injures marine turtles and includes significant habitat modification or degradation that kills or injures marine turtles by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns (379.2431.2). Another Florida Statute, statute 161.163, directs the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to designate coastal areas, utilized by sea turtles for nesting, and establish guidelines for regulations that control beachfront lighting to protect hatchlings[12]. FDEP also requires permits for development seaward of the established Coastal Construction Control Line (CCCL); these permits add requirements and mitigate adverse impacts on turtles and their nesting habitats. FDEP also has set times where construction cannot be conducted, which is nesting seasons (Nov. 1 – April 1)[13]



Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA)

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) is a comprehensive Federal Act aimed to protect endangered species and their habitats. Like the Marine Turtle Protection Act in Florida, the ESA also prohibits ‘take’ of endangered species, including all species of sea turtles[14].


There have been a few court cases regarding sea turtles and the ESA. In the January 2020 case, Center for Biological Diversity v. Bernhardt, several organizations (Center for Biological Diversity, Sea Turtle Oversight Protection, and Turtle Island Restoration Network), sued several parties (Secretary of DOI, Principal Deputy Director of USFWS, USFWS, Secretary of Department of Commerce, and Assistant Admin for Fisheries at NOAA) for violation of the ESA, 16 U.S.C. section 1533(b)(3)(B) – failure to designate critical habitat for the green sea turtle. In August 2020, there was a stipulated settlement agreement ordered where the parties agreed to a timeline for action on critical habitat for green sea turtles – the defendants must submit the proposed designation of critical habitat for six populations of the species by June 2023[15].

Another court case is Loggerhead Turtle v. Volusia County Council in which the plaintiffs argued that the county was responsible forprotecting turtles under ESA from vehicles driven on the beach[16]. In this case, the court concluded that Volusia County was responsible for the actions taken on the beach because the county issued permits for vehicles to drive on beaches at night, endangering turtle populations. Under the ESA, the county is liable for the ‘taking’ of the federally protected turtles.



There are several collaborative acts, regulations, conventions, treaties, etc. in place for international protection of sea turtles. The biggest international convention that protects sea turtles, and other endangered species isthe Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)[17]. Due to their highly migratory nature, sea turtles are particularly threatened and are listed as endangered under appendix I of CITES[18].


Pulling it All Together

There are good ordinances, laws, regulations, and agreements already on the books to protect sea turtles. What is needed is better, more effective enforcement and attention. In other words, we need to use the laws already established – no need to reinvent the wheel, but there is a need to use the wheel wisely. One of the most difficult parts of this protection is the number of moving pieces and players that will need to work together to reach the goal – protect endangered sea turtles from the harm that comes from anthropogenic activities associated with coastal development. If more cities/counties, specifically in coastal zones, implement the codes that are proving to be helpful, then the impact will be more widespread. Following ordinances like seasonal construction and shielded lights may sound like a nuisance, but they will have a large impact. The enforcement needs to besuch that developers and other people sharing the beaches with turtles truly respect the laws and abide by them and,if they do not, violations need to be addressed with punishments, such as fines. Environmental groups need to continue the work they are doing and bring cases to the courts to set precedents to protect the species– designating critical habitat and prohibiting vehicles on beaches are a good start. Humans are the cause for a lot of the damages done to sea turtle populations, so we must be an active solution to save them.

[1] Using Earth’s magnetic field, female turtles return to the same beaches they were born to lay eggs of their own. The female turtle swims through the crashing waves to reach the beach, where she then uses her massive front flippers to drag herself up the beach, past the high-water mark. Once she finds a suitable spot, she uses her hind flippers as shovels to dig a nest in the sand, then she lays clutches of an average of 110 eggs. After the incubation period, the hatchlings break through their shell and dig their way through the sand and emerge from the nest. Once they get to the surface, they must scurry quickly from the nest to the water, avoiding several obstacles and predators. For the hatchlings that do make it to the water still have challenges to face, with survival rates varying between species, some species having a 1 in 1,000 while others have a 1 in 10,000 chance of surviving to adulthood. 


[2] Zachos, E. (2018). Jaguars hunt endangered sea turtles in surprising new footage. National Geographic https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/jaguars-eating-sea-turtles-costa-rica-animals-news


[3] Nel, R. et al. (2017). How turtles affect beaches. SWOT Report Vol. 12. https://www.seaturtlestatus.org/articles/2017/how-turtles-affect-beaches


[4] STC. (2022). Information about sea turtles: threats from coastal armoring. Sea Turtle Conservancy. https://conserveturtles.org/information-sea-turtles-threats-coastal-armoring/


[5]A major source of water pollution is runoff – water that does not soak into the ground or evaporate, but rather flows over the ground surface and inevitably into nearby waterways. Coastal development causes a lot of disturbance and erosion, which can impact how water enters the ocean from land. There are also likely to be a lot of oils, dirt, and other foreign materials at development sites and when rain or other water sources wash over these materials, they flow into the ocean, increasing pollution. One of the biggest threats to sea turtles caused by runoff would be the potential spike of nitrates that cause harmful algal blooms (HABs). These HABs are not only a direct physical threat to turtles, as they are a toxic bloom that can be detrimental to sea turtles’ health, but HABs also decrease dissolved oxygen in water and block out sunlight, both of which destroy coral reefs, sea grasses, and other marine life. Depending on the species of turtle, coral (loggerhead), sea grass (green), and jellyfish (leatherbacks), HABs can destroy entire food sources.  


[6] Land pollution is another major challenge for nesting sea turtles that increases as coastal development increases. There is potential for construction materials and machines to take up space on nesting beaches. While the large machinery will likely prevent turtles from nesting in suitable areas, the smaller litter, like loose building materials, will create challenges and barriers to both nesting females and later hatchlings trying to make it safely to the ocean. Like that, as coastal development grows, the number of humans visiting the beaches are likely to grow, too. This means there’s an increase in harmful behaviors including increased land pollution and anthropogenic landscaping effects. In other words, beach chairs, umbrellas, and buckets may get left behind, creating obstacles for turtles. Building sandcastles and digging holes can result in nesting turtles having a false crawl, or hatchlings getting stuck in a hole and at higher risk from predators. Turtles, both female adults and hatchlings, face enough challenges without humans adding to them. 


[7] Light pollution is an important anthropogenic factor that needs to be addressed. Nesting sea turtles get disoriented by light when finding a suitable spot for their nest, sometimes giving up and heading back to sea. Those who are familiar with turtles and how lights affect them use red lights when patrolling beaches and monitoring turtles at night in efforts to cause the least disturbance possible. Not only are the lights produced during construction detrimental, but lights that are a permanent fixture on buildings, such as hotels, can cause major disorientation to hatchling. Hatchlings use the light casted by the moon to find their way to the ocean. There are disturbing videos of entire clutches of hatchlings stuck in hotel patios, drawn by the light (Barbados Sea Turtle Project). As development continues, the amount of artificial light increases which increases the dangers for hatchlings attempting to make it to the sea. 


[8] Charlotte County, FL. Part III. Chapter 3-5. Article XII. Section 3-5-298. https://library.municode.com/fl/charlotte_county/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=PTIIILADEGRMA_CH3-5PLDE_ARTXIISETUPR_S3-5-298COCOCOWINEZODUNESE


[9] Charlotte County, FL. Part III. Chapter 3-5. Article XII. Section 3-5-299. https://library.municode.com/fl/charlotte_county/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=PTIIILADEGRMA_CH3-5PLDE_ARTXIISETUPR_S3-5-299BELI


[10] FWC. (2020). Florida county map of lighting ordinances. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. https://myfwc.com/media/3150/seaturtle-lightordmap.pdf


[11] FWC. (2022). Sea turtle protection ordinances. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. https://myfwc.com/conservation/you-conserve/lighting/ordinances/






NOAA. (2022). What does take mean under the Endangered Species Act and what is incidental take? National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/node/8051


DDC. (2020). Center for Biological Diversity v. Bernhardt. Docket 1:20-cv-00036. http://climatecasechart.com/case/center-for-biological-diversity-v-bernhardt-9/


Loggerhead Turtle v. Volusia County Council, 896 F. Supp. 117 (MD Fla. 1995). https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/896/1170/1593859/


To learn more about this important and nuanced international agreement, visit cites.org


Saladin, C. Combating illegal trade and unsustainable use of sea turtles at the CITES COP18. International Union for Conservation of Nature. https://www.iucn.org/news/world-commission-environmental-law/201909/combating-illegal-trade-and-unsustainable-use-sea-turtles-cites-cop18