Brunswick Co. sea turtle advocates calling for new light fixtures to prevent misorientation

It's officially summer and that means sea turtle nesting season is in full swing.
File image of sea turtle hatchlings (Photo: WWAY)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — It’s officially summer and that means sea turtle nesting season is in full swing. Advocates for the endangered species are calling on residents and builders to change up their choice of light fixtures to keep the turtles headed for the ocean.

An updated ordinance passed on Tuesday in Holden Beach restricting homes from having certain lights casting direct light more than 15 feet from the footprint of the residence with the exception of light directed into a pool area. Among other things, it prevents homes from having any unnecessary oceanfront lighting during turtle nesting season.

Pat Cusack is the Project Coordinator with Holden Beach Turtle Watch and the NC Wildlife permit holder for sea turtle protection in Holden Beach. He says the white lights misorient or disorient sea turtles and hatchlings, leading them away from the water.

“The white lights are an attractor, even for the adult turtles. For hatchlings, it’s a death sentence, basically,” Cusack said. “They see the white light and they’re like a kid in the candy store, they run right in. They come away from the water up into the dunes, the crabs get them, foxes, any other critter than likes to eat little hatchlings.”

Just last week, Cusack was on the beach with a nesting turtle late in the evening around 10 or 11 pm. He says when she had finished nesting, she headed straight toward a home with a spotlight along the beach strand. After redirecting her, Cusack says she still walked more than 170 yards down the beach because she was following the lights shining in Ocean Isle Beach.

“We average about three nests per year, which is over 300 hatchlings that we’re losing due to the lights,’ Cusack said.

Cusack says the amendment to the ordinance is certainly helpful, but he would really love to see oceanfront homeowners install amber-colored lights. He says the wavelength of the amber lights don’t have as much of an effect on the turtles.

Just down the beach strand in Ocean Isle Beach, NC Wildlife permit holder for sea turtle protection Deb Allen agrees.

“There is no harm by amber lights for humans and it’s actually better for all wildlife and humans to have amber lights rather than the bright white lights.”

Allen says last year more than 800 hatchlings were misoriented, and 252 were classified as dead because of artificial lights.

“The town was able to put in a lighting ordinance for new construction but that doesn’t apply to the electric companies,” Allen said. “The electric companies are the ones we need to get on board with making changes to light fixtures and the bulbs that they put up in new developments and I’d really like to see them change existing ones.”

Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation says they try to find solutions to minimize environmental impact, like turning off street lights near nests and moving light poles away from the beach. Allen says these are great steps to take, but ultimately not enough to keep the endangered species safe.

“Lights can be seen for a long long way by sea turtles because they’re looking for the moon, the stars, or the effervescence of the breaking waves and it’s easy for them to mistake it, so turning off one street light is not going to fix the problem,” Allen said.

Allen has been in conversation with BEMC and the developer of The Pointe OIB to potentially get amber-colored street lights installed in the new development.

The Sea Turtle Conservancy has gotten involved in the conversation as well, sending a letter to the organization recommending the installation of the amber-colored lights for the safety of the turtles as well as humans. The letter cites studies from the American Medical Association that show blue-rich street lights can interrupt sleep patterns and even contribute to obesity.

BEMC shared a statement that reads as follows.

“BEMC has always – and will continue to – work with local community organizations, HOAs and property developers to implement lighting solutions that balance the environmental concerns of our members as well as specific safety or design regulations imposed by local or municipal statutes.  In the past, BEMC has worked to find creative solutions to minimize any negative environmental impacts to nesting turtles – including turning off select street lights during turtles’ nesting season, installing dimmer or cut-off switches, moving the location of light poles (away from the beach) and/or reducing the height of light poles to reduce light pollution over dunes.  BEMC regularly engages with members and the communities we serve on these types of issues to achieve the best results for all concerned parties. We are currently engaged in dialogue with Ocean Isle Beach and the developer of the Pointe OIB on some requests for non-standard lighting at that location and we are optimistic we can reach a solution that satisfies all parties.”  

Anyone interested in learning more about amber-colored lights, contact the beach’s sea turtle protection organization.

For Holden Beach, visit here. For Ocean Isle, visit here.

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