Center for Protection

Carr Refuge Brevard’s best nest spot for protected turtles
Special to Florida Weekly

SEA TURTLE RESEARCHERS RIDE ATVS FOR miles each morning along the beaches in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge on Melbourne Beach, looking for crawls or signs of new nests to be marked, monitored and protected.

In the best cases, the crawls, unique to each species — loggerhead, green and leatherback — are successful, eggs are laid. Baby turtles will eventually emerge, head to sea, and one day return to repeat the process.

For years, many have believed that this pristine natural area — the busiest sea turtle nesting location in the U.S. — had been forever set aside from development and destruction and will be maintained properly in perpetuity. Now, with a shifting politi- cal landscape, supporters say they will have to remain diligent and stretch maintenance dollars to ensure the Carr Refuge’s future.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service established the refuge in 1989 under the Department of the Interior to “protect sea turtle populations and their nesting habitat along the central Atlantic coastline of Florida.” The refuge was named after the late Dr. Archie Carr, a pioneer in Florida ecology and sea turtle biology.

The start of the Tour de Turtles from Archie Carr near the Barrier Island Center. Sea turtles are released with transmitters so they can be tracked. The start of the Tour de Turtles from Archie Carr near the Barrier Island Center. Sea turtles are released with transmitters so they can be tracked. Sea turtles lay about 100 eggs in a nest up to three to seven times during the summer nesting season. Along the 20-mile stretch of beach on the east coast of Florida, sea turtles lay over 150,000 pounds of eggs in the sand.

The Barrier Island Sanctuary, located within the boundaries of the refuge, is comprised of seven properties that encompass more than 34 acres south of the city of Melbourne Beach. The site includes both beach and other properties representing different ecosystems.

The primary management goals for the site include the conservation and restoration of ecosystem function, natural communities and native species’ habitat. The collection and documentation of natural and cultural resource data are also important management goals. Other objectives include provisions for public access and environmental education.

The Barrier Island Sanctuary is also part of a larger sanctuary network established by the Environmentally Endangered Lands Program in Brevard County. The intent of the EEL Program is to acquire environmentally sensitive lands as a first step toward “long-term protection of essential natural resources, open space, green space, wildlife corridors and maintenance of natural ecosystem functions.”

Citizens in 1990 voted to tax themselves up to $55 million for the acquisition and maintenance of Brevard’s natural areas, and reaffirmed the EEL Program in 2004 under a second referendum to protect the natural habitats in Brevard County by the acquisition of environmentally sensitive lands.

Ray Mojica, land manager for the South Beach Region since 1999, oversaw the creation of the Barrier Island Center. Ray Mojica, land manager for the South Beach Region since 1999, oversaw the creation of the Barrier Island Center. The Barrier Island Management and Education Center, located near the middle of the Carr Refuge, is a modern educational facility with classrooms, an interactive exhibit room, a library, offices, auditorium and a gift shop.

The center, built on the site of the former Chuck’s Steakhouse, provides a focal point for the refuge and the associated barrier island by providing exhibit space, a presentation hall and ongoing educational programs that promote stewardship of the area’s fragile natural resources. The regional management center and surrounding sanctuaries in the EEL Sanctuary network are promoted as potential venues to support nature-based tourism activities.

The Barrier Island Center and its displays.

“The federal government does not have a traditional visitor center in this refuge. It’s almost exactly in the middle of Archie Carr Refuge and the 20-mile stretch of refuge is the epicenter of sea turtle nesting in North America,’’ said Ray Mojica, land manager for the South Beach Region since 1999.

Public access to the Barrier Island Sanctuary and other sanctuary properties encourages awareness of Brevard’s natural and cultural assets, fosters a greater understanding of the balance between access and non-consumptive use of the sites’ resources, and promotes environmental stewardship, benefiting both the local community and the EEL Program, according to its website.

Reason behind the refuge

The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge was established because leading sea turtle researchers and concerned citizens had watched turtle populations worldwide plummet due to over-exploitation and destruction of nesting habitat. The refuge offers hope for saving one of the most important sea turtle nesting sites in the world, its supporters say.

Long stretches of quiet, undisturbed sandy beaches, with little or no artificial light, are essential to the reproductive success and survival of sea turtles. This fact is recognized in sea turtle recovery plans developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which call for purchasing and protecting the best remaining nesting beaches.

Progress has been made toward protecting nesting beaches from development and those purchases will likely stay in place, Mr. Mojica said.

“We think we’re OK now because we were able get a lot of the properties down there (south of Melbourne Beach) before the real estate market went insane. We got a pretty good chunk of what was available. Because the purchase was both federal and state, and approved by local voters, it would be very difficult for the government to change course in the area.

“A lot of our support came from former residents of South Florida. They know what built-out communities are like,’’ Mr. Mojica said.

As for the future, with the EEL land acquisition phase winding down, the remaining properties being purchased will “fill in the gaps” with other natural areas to create wildlife corridors, he said.

And it may one day be a challenge to maintain the EEL beaches in Archie Carr and the 25 miles of trails established nearby on the west side of SR A1A in the Maritime Hammock, Mr. Mojica said.

“We’re going to need to be creative on how we implement the long term maintenance plan,’’ he said.

Donna Lee Crawford, community stewardship coordinator for the Sea Turtle Conservancy, puts the significance of such preservation in perspective.

“All things in this special place we live truly are connected, especially where sea turtles are concerned,’’ Ms. Crawford said. “As a keystone species, their behavior is vital to the health of our ocean and beach ecosystems.

“Sea turtles are amazing creatures, having thrived for 150 million years, yet their survival is now threatened by alterations to their habitats influenced by us,” Ms. Crawford said. “Marine debris and pollutions, artificial lighting, coastal armoring and commercial fishing contribute to their decline. Protecting sea turtles and the fragile natural resources we share, and depend upon, may save our future, too.”

The Sea Turtle Conservancy’s website even paints a potentially ominous scenario: “The Archie Carr Refuge represents the nation’s most significant land acquisition effort to protect the world’s populations of marine turtles. Unfortunately, rapid coastal development in Brevard and Indian River counties threatens the future effectiveness of the refuge. Supporters of the refuge are literally in a race against time to acquire the best remaining parcels of undeveloped land.” ¦

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2012-10-18 digital edition

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