An amphibious assault

An amphibious assault – sea turtles

Cheri M. Ehrhardt

Standing at night atop a dune on Florida’s Atlantic coast, you hear the ocean waves rolling onto the sandy shore and feel the sea spray on your face. The moonlight plays and flickers in the waves. It is soothing and peaceful.

Then, the amphibious assault begins. Dark forms move onto the shore. They lumber forward, intent on their target. Elements of the assault force range from the size of a child’s tricycle to the occasional small all-terrain vehicle.

As the moonlight brightens, you realize that this amphibious assault force is actually composed of sea turtles. Their target is Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, a 20.5-mile (33-kilometer) stretch of beach located in east-central Florida between Melbourne Beach in Brevard County and Wabasso Beach in Indian River County. Congress authorized the refuge in 1989 to protect sea turtle populations and their nesting habitat. The refuge was named after the late Dr. Archie F. Carr, Jr., in honor of his contributions to the conservation of sea turtles and Florida’s ecology. Hosting about 1,000 sea turtle nests per mile, the refuge provides habitat each year for 22,000 nests of loggerhead, green, and leatherback sea turtles. In fact, the refuge protects the most important sea turtle nesting beaches in the United States, with 25 percent of all loggerhead and 35 percent of green sea turtle nests.

Adjacent to the refuge is an important juvenile sea turtle nursery within the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Indian River Lagoon (which we regard as our nation’s most biologically diverse estuary). But these lands are not just for sea turtles. At least 38 federally and state listed threatened and endangered species (including 8 reptiles, 10 birds, 4 mammals, and 16 plants) rely on the mix of lands and waters in the refuge, including maritime hammock, coastal scrub, dune, and beach habitats (see Table 1). It also contains at least 30 archaeological sites (primarily Ais Indian shell middens, with 4 burial mounds).

The Archie Carr Refuge is a unique example of cooperation and partnership for the conservation of unique habitats for endangered species. This is especially evident when looking at the checkerboard of ownership within the refuge’s overall acquisition boundary, which includes publicly held natural lands and other lands already converted to use for residential and commercial purposes. Given the ongoing development pressure in this area, the Service recognized the need to protect the remaining natural lands. Those lands purchased prior to the formation of the refuge under the State of Florida’s Save Our Coasts and Beach and Riverfront programs served as the nucleus for the refuge. To date, the partner agencies and organizations have spent over $100 million on land acquisitions for the refuge. Many more agencies and organizations have been involved in the refuge since before its creation (see Table 2).

Today, this stretch of barrier island includes natural lands administered or owned by the Fish and Wildlife Service, State of Florida, Brevard County, Indian River County, the RK Mellon Foundation, and private landowners. Nevertheless, despite the support, dedication, and involvement of the wide variety of partners, over 40 percent of the lands located within the refuge’s proposed acquisition boundary have already been developed, predominantly for high end residential and commercial uses. This development is fueled by Florida’s human population growth, which has expanded from 13 million in 1990 to over 16 million today. Scrub habitat has declined such that only one family of Florida scrub-jays remains in the vicinity of the refuge. The foredune habitat of the southeastern beach mouse also has suffered greatly from development and dune erosion.

Human development and disturbances are multiplying, furthering habitat loss and fragmentation. Human impacts to these beaches include an escalation of lighting along the beach, beach access points, nighttime public use of the beach, commercial and residential development on the barrier island, commercial fishing, recreational boating (including the personal watercraft popularly known as jet skis), beach erosion, and elevated nutrient loading and pollution in nearby waterways. Other threats include large storms and nest predation; the main predators at sea turtle nests are raccoons and ghost crabs, while ground nesting birds are heavily affected by feral and free ranging domestic cats. In some sections within the developed areas of the beach, predation claims up to 100 percent of sea turtle nests.

But things are looking up for the refuge. Historically, the Archie Carr and Pelican Island refuges were managed by just one man and one boat. More recently, they received permanent staff to assist the Refuge Manager: a Biologist, a Biological Technician, and a Refuge Ranger. Term or temporary staff include an Administrative Assistant, seasonal Biological Technician, and a Refuge Operations Specialist. Working with the partners, the new staff will help ensure that we continue to protect these special beaches.

Later in the summer, when the amphibious assault is just a memory, millions of sea turtle hatchlings will bubble out of the sand from their warm underground nests. The moon’s glow on the water will guide them back to the ocean and the Gulf Stream to begin the process anew.

Table 1. The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge supports a variety

of federally (FWS) and state (FWC) listed species: at least 15

federally threatened or endangered species and 38 species listed by

the State of Florida as endangered, threatened, of special concern,

or commercially exploited, including 8 reptile, 10 bird, 4 mammal, and

16 plant species.

Scientific Name Common Name FWS FWC

(15) (38)

Reptiles (8)

Caretta caretta Atlantic Loggerhead

Sea Turtle T T

Chelonia mydas mydas Atlantic Green Sea Turtle E E

Dermochelys coriacea Leatherback Sea Turtle E E

Drymarchon corais

couperi Eastern Indigo Snake T T

Lepidochelys kempii Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle E E

Eretmochelys imbricata

imbratica Atlantic Hawksbill Sea Turtle E E

Gopherus polyphemus Gopher Tortoise SSC

Nerodia clarkii taeniata Atlantic Salt Marsh Snake * T T

Birds (10)

Aphelocoma coerulescens Florida Scrub-jay T T

Charadrius melodus Piping Plover T T

Falco sparverius paulus Southeastern American Kestrel T

Falco peregrinus tundrius Arctic Peregrine Falcon E

Haematopus palliatus American Oystercatcher SSC

Haliaeetus leucocephalus Southern Bald Eagle T T

Mycteria americana Wood Stork E E

Pelecanus occidentalis Brown Pelican SSC

Rynchops niger Black Skimmer SSC

Sterna antillarum Least Tern T

Mammals (4)

Balaena glacialis Right Whale E E

Megaptera novaeangliae Humpback Whale E E

Peromyscus polionotus

niveiventris Southeastern Beach Mouse * T T

Trichechus manatus West Indian Manatee E E

Plants (16)

Acrostichum danaeifolium Giant Leather Fern CE

Asclepias curtissii Curtis’ (Sandhill) Milkweed E

Crossopetalum ilicifolium Christmas Berry E

Encyclia tampensis Butterfly Orchid CE

Ernodea littoralis Beach Creeper T

Hexalectris spicata Crested Coralroot E

Lantana depressa Pineland Lantana E

Myrcianthes fragrans

(= Eugenia simpsonii) Simpson Stopper T

Opuntia stricta Shell Mound Prickly Pear

Cactus T

Osmunda cinnamomea Cinnamon Fern CE

Peperomia humilis Pepper (no common name) E

Scaevola plumieri Inkberry T

Tillandsia balbisiana Inflated (Reflexed) Wild Pine T

Tillandsia utriculata Giant Wild Pine; Giant Air

Plant E

Verbena maritima Coastal Vervain E

Verbena tampensis Tampa Vervain E

* Historically (but not recently) found at the Refuge

Key: E = Endangered T = Threatened SSC = Species of Special Concern

CE = Commercially Exploited

Table 2. Refuge Partners

Brevard Zoo

California Turtle and Tortoise Society

Caribbean Conservation Corporation

Columbus Zoo

Defenders of Wildlife

Disney Corporation

Florida Affinity, Inc.

Florida Defenders of the Environment

Friends of the Carr Refuge

Greenpeace

Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute

Indian River Land Trust

International Fund for Animal

Welfare

Marine Resources Council

national, Florida, and local Audubon

societies

national, Florida, and local Sierra

clubs

National Wildlife Federation

The Nature Conservancy

New York Turtle and Tortoise Society

Ocean Conservancy

RK Mellon Foundation

The Sea Turtle Center

Sea Turtle Preservation Society

Sea Turtle Survival League

The Wilderness Society

For more information about the Archie Carr NWR, contact the Refuge Manager, Paul Tritaik at 772/562-3909, ext. 244. Cheri M. Ehrhardt, AICP, is the Natural Resource Planner at the Merritt Island NWR Complex.

COPYRIGHT 2003 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group