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Hilton Head Island moves a step closer to new sea turtle protection ordinance

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Sea turtle eggs are seen in a nest on South Island at Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center, June 26, 2019. Hilton Head Island is a step closer to enacting an ordinance that would help eliminate light on the beach and, in turn, help sea turtle hatchlings make their way to the sea. Lauren Petracca/Staff

HILTON HEAD ISLAND — The town government is a step closer to enacting an ordinance meant to eliminate light on the beach and, in turn, reduce the number of disoriented sea turtle hatchlings.

The town has worked since 2019 to come up with a proposal addressing concerns from the Sea Turtle Patrol about the number of sea turtles being lost because of disorientation caused by light pollution.

On Feb. 3, the Hilton Head Island Public Planning Committee approved a proposal that would prohibit new and existing homes from shining light onto the beach through windows, doors and outdoor fixtures. If approved, the new ordinance would align Hilton Head with regulations already in place in some Charleston-area beach communities. 

Properties would be required to have light-blocking curtains or blinds, tinted windows or solar screens that would ensure light is not emitted toward the beach.

Another option would be to turn off interior lights that are visible from the beach between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. during sea turtle nesting season which runs from May to October.

Exterior lights would have to have a shield and be directed downward.

Since approved by the committee, the proposal now goes to the full council for consideration and adoption. If passed by the council, the guidelines would take effect May 1.

In September, the town said violators of the ordinance would be issued warnings. Repeated failures to comply could result in a $500 fine or 30 days in jail.

Anne Cyran, Hilton Head Island’s senior planner, said the town’s sea turtle hatchling success rate dropped from 62 percent to 48 percent between 2014 and 2018. The Turtle Patrol determined that a number of factors contributed to the hatchling’s reduced success, including weather, holes in the sand, property left on the beach and artificial lighting.

Sea turtles depend on the brightest light at night to lead them to the water. Often, that light is the moon. But other lights, such as those coming from within and outside homes, can cause confusion.

The town has an existing ordinance that was enacted in 1990 to protect sea turtles, but nesting and hatchling research has advanced since then. Amber Kuehn, a marine biologist and leader of the sea turtle patrol group, said she has given the town scientific evidence regarding sea turtle hatchlings.

“It is not a theory that sea turtle hatchlings use visual cues to find the ocean,” Kuehn said. “And in the dark, the only visual cue depends on the brightest light.”

She said any documents that state artificial light may cause disorientation are out of date.

Kuehn said the island averages about 300 sea turtle nests a year on 14 miles of beach. At least 35 nests were lost in 2020.

Follow Shamira McCray on Twitter @ShamiraTweets.

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