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Published On: Mon, Oct 1st, 2018

FEMA coordinating with Puerto Rican officials to remove debris, preserve sea turtle habitats

Sea turtles are perceptive, delicate creatures. Unnatural light throws off their navigation. Footprints in the sand trap them. Beach chairs disorient them. These sensitivities have led FEMA and the government of Puerto Rico to exercise special considerations as the island’s coastlines are cleared.

FEMA has teamed with the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore dunes and minimize negative environmental effects during coastal debris removal—particularly the protection of sea turtle habitats.

Debris operations ongoing at 29 beaches in Puerto Rico proceed with caution; especially since sea turtles are endangered species protected by local and federal law. Environmental changes like collapsing sand, temperature variations and excavation may harm the nests where sea turtle egg laying begins in February and hatchlings emerge through November.

Fragile ecosystems the seafaring reptiles call home were disrupted following hurricanes Irma and María. Debris left in their wake has impacted sand dunes and encroached upon the sea turtle’s ancestral homes nesting habitat.

Extinction risk for many marine species is increasing, according to an assessment published by the Center for Biological Diversity that reports marine mammals and sea turtles currently comprise 36 percent of the 161 Endangered Species Act-listed marine organisms.

Conservation efforts take many approaches. Clearing litter from beaches can reduce the numbers of sea turtles that die after ingesting fishing line, balloons and plastic debris. In the Florida Keys, white street lights—invisible to hatchlings—were replaced with red lights after Hurricane Irma eroded sand berms that stopped hatchlings from entering the street.

Sea Turtle photo Laura Jones

Puerto Rico’s Conservation of Turtles after Hurricane María
The Leatherback, Hawksbill and Green Turtle are the protected species that currently nest in Puerto Rico. The Leatherback can grow to 8 feet long and weigh up to 2,000 pounds, nesting on beaches in San Juan, Fajardo, Luquillo, Dorado, Toa Baja, Maunabo, Culebra, Vieques, Humacao and Mayaguez.

Hawksbill turtles are smaller in size, growing to 45 inches in length and weighing between 110-150 pounds. Hawksbills have a permanent sanctuary in Mona Island, off the island’s west coast.

The Green Turtle, found in Vieques, is an herbivore, eating mostly seagrasses and algae. It weighs between 300 to 350 pounds and grows to 3 to 4 feet long.
The best management practices plan by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA restricts certain beach debris removal activities:

  • Night operations are prohibited. Adult female turtles and new hatchlings
    are guided back to sea by moonlight and can mistake artificial light for
    moonlight. If artificial light is present, sea turtles may crawl toward that
    light instead of the ocean.
  • Heavy machinery use is not permitted during the peak of nesting season.
  • Removal or alteration of vegetation and beach contours is forbidden.

Any change to seaside topography could disrupt the unique aspects that
draw sea turtles to their nesting spots. A buffer zone must be maintained
from marked nests and sand must be returned to pre-work contours.

  • Periodic beach monitoring. Debris removal teams must coordinate with
    sea turtle experts and local conservation groups who inspect, tag and
    monitor sea turtle nests. Reports must be filed when new nests or adult
    turtles are observed and when emerging nestlings and injured or dead
    turtles are found.

In addition to this partnership, some FEMA employees also volunteer with sea turtle conservancies to further the mission to protect Puerto Rico’s turtles, according to Erica Santana, an Environmental and Historic Preservation Manager for the Natural and Cultural Resources Recovery Sector.

“This plan is a beautiful example of how a little planning and coordination up front can go a long way in mitigating impacts to natural resources,” said Santana.

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