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How to use the beach: A look into ways to preserve SWFL beaches

A trash can at Bonita Beach
Katie Fogarty
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To take care of our beaches, make sure to throw away all trash and to not leave any trace.

Winter storms continue to blow furiously in the north and more snowbirds are flocking to warmer climates. While beaches in Florida are popular getaways for northerners, it’s important for all beachgoers to properly know how to use local beaches.

Whether in ignorance or a blatant disregard for the rules, beach patrons may leave a significantly negative effect on the environment in Southwest Florida.

“People who don’t know the rules or don’t respect nature will just kind of inadvertently damage the park, and make it worse for everyone and for the environment as a whole,” said Daniel Osborne, a park ranger at Lovers Key State Park.

Osborne said that thousands of people come to Lover’s Key every day in peak season.

Many may not know the rules and laws that are meant to protect the flora and fauna while at the beach. One area that people may inadvertently cause harm to is the tall grasses that fringe the beach called sea oats.

Many beach-goers sit on sea oats or pull them out of the ground to make room for umbrellas or tent structures. What they may not realize is how important sea oats are to maintain the beaches they have come to enjoy.

“They’re very important,” Osborne said. “They’re the reason we have a beach at all.”
Osborne said that Lovers Key is seeing the impacts of sea oats being damaged and removed by beach-goers. At this time, there’s an escarpment that’s a three-foot sheer cliff in some areas along the entire beach. The sand hasn’t been replenished fast enough because sea oats haven’t been plentiful enough to stabilize the sand amid storms.

Sea oats stabilize sand by holding it in place with their roots. Storms and high tides often have an impact on how much sand is lost on beaches. This damage is worsened if sea oats are damaged or removed, since their roots hold the sand in their webbed roots. Without the sea oats, the beaches eventually shrink in size.

Not only are sea oats critical to the beach, they are a protected species by law in Florida. It is against the rules to walk wherever sea oats grow, whether on sand dunes or beaches. The fine for damaging sea oats can be up to $500.

Another beach-goer faux-paux is when patrons bring grills. Grilling poses a major fire hazard and another threat to sea oats. Osborne said that there is a risk that the entire beach could go up in smoke when grills are used in proximity to the sea oats.

Sea turtles can also be effected by a disregard for beach rule. They are one reason that dogs are not allowed at Florida state beaches.

“Dogs really like digging up sea turtle nests. It’s unfortunate, but a lot of dogs are bred to dig and eat things that live in holes, like rats or whatever. It’s just kind of their natural instinct,” said Osborne.

Sea turtles can lay hundreds of eggs in a single nest, but only one or two of those will reach adulthood. Osborne said that if a nest gets destroyed, whether by dogs or by other animals, that reduces the chance of a sea turtle hatching and making it to adulthood.

“No dogs on the beach, no grills on the beach, and stay out of the dunes,” Osborne said. “Those are the big three rules.”

Trash can also be a problem for turtles.

Osborne said that Lovers Key State Park has one of the highest sea turtle predation rates in Florida with raccoons being one of the most frequent predators. There may be a correlation between a high visitor rate at Lovers Key and raccoons which are attracted by the quantity of trash left on the beaches.

“Obviously, [trash] affects the wildlife and the quality of their life and what’s around them, and it can definitely affect the ability to enjoy what we can see on the beaches as well,” said Stacey Overbeek, who was a visitor at Bonita Beach.

Ruth Vanbeck was also a visitor at Bonita Beach. She believes respecting the beach and others is important when trying to keep beaches clean.

“People respect other people’s area, and try to keep things cleaned up, just like they would at their home, you know. It’s not pleasant seeing other people’s trash around,” Vanbeck said.

Tisha Bayne is the office coordinator at Keep Lee County Beautiful. KLCB has over 5,000 volunteers each year who help with activities such as beach clean-ups and planting sea oats at Lovers Key State Park to protect the shoreline.

Bayne suggests not bringing single-use plastics to the beach to decrease the likelihood of contributing to beach pollution. She also suggests bringing your own trash bag to minimize the chance of littering, and to pick up other trash that may be seen on the beaches.

“The golden rule for good beach etiquette is to leave nothing behind but your footprints,” Bayne said.

“Be mindful of others, mind your business, and be sure to pick up after yourselves,” Daniel Osborne said.