Developments on beaches that are designated as critical sea turtle nesting habitat must install ‘turtle-friendly’ lighting within three years under new proposals to protect the species.
A draft conservation plan, put forward by the National Conservation Council, identifies artificial beach lighting along with poaching as the greatest threats to the species.
“Without addressing these and other threats, Cayman Islands’ sea turtle populations cannot survive,” the document states.
Though there has been a resurgence of nesting sea turtles in the Cayman Islands in recent years, the plan warns that numbers are still critically low.
It indicates the immediate goal is to prevent the extinction of green, loggerhead and hawksbill nesting populations in Cayman’s waters.
It warns that thousands of hatchlings die every year after being disorientated by beachside lighting and proposes a Florida-style ban on excessive beach illumination.
When turtle hatchlings emerge from their nests, they find the ocean by heading towards the brightest light they can see. On undeveloped beaches, that is the moon and stars reflecting on the ocean’s surface. But artificial lights in built-up areas are often brighter and lead the hatchlings towards land where they die from exhaustion, dehydration, vehicles or predators, the plan indicates.
It proposes that developers proposing projects next to critical nesting beaches are legally required, through the Central Planning Authority, to follow turtle-friendly lighting plans, including using amber-wavelength lights and orienting lights away form the beach.
Existing developments next to those beaches – specified through the plan as critical habitat – will be required to switch up their lighting, including street lights that illuminate beaches, within three years of the plan coming into force.
At the end of that grace period, the plan indicates that anyone responsible for a light that results in the death of a turtle hatchling by diverting it from its path to the sea is liable to be prosecuted under the conservation law.
The plan also highlights poaching as a significant threat. Citing a recent study which showed 200 households had bought illegal turtle meat in a year, it states, “due to the small size of turtle nesting populations, levels of illegal harvest represent a significant threat”.
The plan also includes provision for habitat protection. It proposes that the beaches that have had the highest density of turtle nesting over the last 20 years be designated as special protection zones. Exactly what this additional layer of protection would involve is not specified in the plan.
Regulations for the sale of farmed turtle meat and the release of reared hatchlings into the wild are also covered. The plan seeks to outlaw the use of vehicles on Cayman’s nesting beaches between May and November, except in special circumstances.
Members of the council voted to approve the plan to go out for public consultation, at their quarterly meeting Wednesday. That process is expected to begin in the coming weeks.
- This article has been changed to reflect the fact that the lighting regulations apply only to beaches designated as critical turtle nesting habitat