Officials with the Department of Environment are hoping a pilot project to install turtle-friendly lights on a stretch of Seven Mile Beach in West Bay will encourage beachfront property owners in other areas to follow suit.
“Lighting is the most important factor in turtle survival,” said research officer Janice Blumenthal, speaking at a seminar on the topic Monday morning at The Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Bright white lights can draw hatchling turtles away from their intended course, which is toward the ocean. Turtles normally emerge from their nests at night, and usually head toward the brightest light they see. Typically, that is the moon, or its reflection off the water.
On Seven Mile Beach, the most active turtle nesting area on Grand Cayman, bright lights from hotels, private residences and even streetlights can disorient the animals and lead them away from their natural target.
“Lights on the beach are the greatest threat to the future population,” Blumenthal said.
She and her colleagues are promoting a plan to put Cayman on a different wavelength when it comes to beachside lighting: a longer wavelength.
“Turtles are least attracted to long wavelengths of light,” said environmental assessment officer Wendy Williams. Light in that part of the spectrum is amber or red.
“Not too many hotels or residences want their places illuminated in red,” Williams said, so amber lighting is being proposed. The Department of Environment has received $165,000 in funding from the Environmental Protection Fund for the current pilot project, which Williams said could affect 600 nests and 4,800 hatchlings.
The department is paying for the lights and fixtures to retrofit existing properties, and asking property owners to pay for the installation. This results in about a 50/50 split in cost, Blumenthal said.
In addition, the department has put forward a draft conservation plan that calls for all new construction in beach areas where nesting occurs to be fitted with turtle-friendly lighting. It also carries regulations for retrofitting existing buildings with the amber-coloured lights. That draft must go through a public review period before it is presented to Cabinet for consideration.
In the meantime, environment officials have been recommending that the Central Planning Authority require turtle friendly lighting on new construction near recognised nesting areas.
“CPA doesn’t have to take our recommendations, but they have in recent months,” Williams said.
Turtle nesting activity has increased dramatically in the past 20 years, which is when the department began collecting such data. In 1999, just 23 nests were identified on Grand Cayman. In 2017, there were 412. Even with that increase, Blumenthal said, turtles remained threatened.
Human encroachment, poaching, heavy equipment use on beaches, pollution and even such things as discarded fishing lines and nets can hurt the turtle population. But losing hatchlings disoriented by artificial light has the biggest negative impact. Other strategies have been tried, she said, but using turtle-friendly lighting works the best.
Police Constable Jonathan Kern, who opened the seminar, presented data gathered from Anna Maria Island in Florida, where turtle-friendly lighting was installed islandwide in 2011. Disorientation of hatchlings at seven study sites went from 900-1,300 annually to zero for the two consecutive years following the lighting change.
Kern emphasised that while the amber lighting does not appear as bright to the human eye, it does provide ample lighting for security. Another study on the island, Kern said, showed no increase in the crime rate since the lighting was installed.
The 20 people who attended the seminar were a mix of government, private industry and media representatives. Those from industry had questions regarding fixtures and costs. Blumenthal and Williams had a selection of different fixtures and showed how they might be used depending upon the lighting needed for a given area.
“Cost is not a tremendous factor,” Blumenthal said, adding that LED and long wavelength lights are comparable in price.
She is hoping the pilot project will lead to more people deciding to change the lighting they use.
“We feel a lot of people want to see this in place before they commit,” she said. “That’s why we applied for the funding, so we could create a model. We would really like to see critical habitat be turtle friendly in three to five years.”
Information and guidelines on turtle-friendly lighting are available at www.bit.ly/2TXZZAH.