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Rising Seas are Setting Sea Turtle Conservation Back

Jan 21, 2015 03:36 PM EST

Experts at the University of Central Florida have recently revealed an alarming discovery. Based on observations and projections about rising sea levels, they have concluded that climate change may have an adverse impact on more than 30 years of conservation efforts focused on keeping endangered sea turtles around for another generation.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Chelonian Conservation and Biology, which details how climate change and the consequential rise in sea levels is leading to the destruction of unobstructed beach habitats essential for sea turtle survival.

To determine this, biologist Llewellyn Ehrhart and his colleagues analyzed 31 years of data concerning loggerhead sea turtle reproduction at a 13-mile stretch of open beach in southern Brevard - part of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. Specifically, Ehrhart documented the number of turtles who laid eggs, the number of eggs that hatched, and how many turtles made it to the water in those three decades.

That data was then compared with sea level rise in the area over the same time frame, and conclusions were made.

"The crux of the matter is that sea level rise is happening, there's no question," Ehrhart said in a statement.

The consequence, as detailed in the study, is increased rates of beach erosion and overall narrowing of the beach berm within refuge boundaries. This reduces real estate where the endangered turtles can lay their eggs, and leads to smaller numbers.

However, Ehrhart and his team argue that trying to prevent this in contemporary ways may be even worse. His study found that armoring (putting up hard surfaces to protect against erosion) has a negative impact on beaches. It puts up barriers to wildlife and impacts sea turtles' ability to nest. These barriers can also have a negative impact on other wildlife.

"It's not a popular idea, but we need to allow beaches to move," he explained. "Our response has to be an intelligent one. We can't continue to build hard structures because it is only going to make matters worse for sea turtles and the beach in general."

"We need courageous leadership to find good solutions," Ehrhart added, "not just easy ones."

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