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Sundial Live In Key West: The Fight To Save South Florida's Marine Life

Sherrilyn Cabrera
Sundial host Luis Hernandez with panelists in the Studios of Key West.

The Florida Keys depend on the coral reef tract and marine life for much more than just recreation. They're vital to the economy, contributing billions of dollars in tourism and travel to the region. But pollution, development and a warming ocean have had catastrophic effects on the environment. 

Hotter temperatures and dryer seasons have disrupted the habitat of sea turtles. The temperature of the sand where turtles nest can impact turtles' gender, causing scientists to worry about the population’s future. And coral bleaching and stony coral loss diseasehave devastated Florida’s coral reef tract, home to fish and sea life. 

This week, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary released a new plan that lays out sweeping changes to protect the ocean’s coral reefs, stretching south from Miami to the Dry Tortugas. Scientists and researchers are encouraging residents of the area to do their part and contribute to the conservation of marine life. 

READ MORE: Keys Sanctuary Unveils Plan To Protect Reef, Surrounding Habitats

WLRN’s Sundial hit the road for a live show at The Studios of Key West, where we were joined by a panel of advocates, experts and lawmakers. The panel included: Nancy Klingener, WLRN’s Monroe County reporter; Jerry Lorenz, Science director for Audubon Florida, based at Audubon's Everglades Science Center in Tavernier; Heather Carruthers, Monroe County commissioner for District 3; Bette Zirkelbach, Director of the Marathon Turtle Hospital; and Richie Moretti, the hospital’s founder. 

This has been edited lightly for clarity. 

WLRN: Nan, you've been reporting in this area for a while. What's the common threat that you hear from people? 

KLINGENER: Well, it's a funny thing. People in The Keys don't always agree on everything but one common thing is, whether they've been here for five generations or five years, they'll tell you it was better when they first got here, for sure. Some of that's just plain old nostalgia, like we all have for our youth. But, it's also true that things have changed a lot. It's a lot busier, especially during season, and we don't have an off season anymore in the summer. I think what we have in the winter is a snowbird season. We just have so many more winter residents who are here. That's the added stress on our traffic and everything else. And I agree with Richie too, his idea that we're an investment rather than home. That's also true for businesses. A lot of our hotels that used to be owned by people who lived here and ran those hotels are now owned by corporations from elsewhere that don't have a whole lot of reason to invest in the community. 

Is it to keep people out or is it more to control the cost? 

CARRUTHERS: We had a very unique situation before, frankly, the Airbnbs started allowing people to rent out houses. And that situation was that we had a limited number of transit rentals we controlled. There were 6,600 hotel rooms in the City of Key West and we were able to at least manage the people who came there. But once people started looking at this, as Richie said, as an investment they say, 'well I can cover my nut if I rent this out for Fantasy Fest and Christmas and New Year's.' So they have a completely different headset about the economy and about the community, they're not necessarily part of the community. They're looking at it as an investment. And our inability to regulate that, thanks to the state legislature, just exacerbates the problem that we have then with affordable housing and rental housing. 

What are the threats sea turtles are facing?

ZIRKELBACH: That's a good thing to bring up. It's kind of a sore subject. They have down listed the green sea turtles that were listed as endangered. They're now listed as threatened, as we know in the Florida Keys. We see over 50 percent of our population is inflicted with that fiber Papillomatosis, which is that horrific disease with the tumors. And it's been an incredible year for nesting, all throughout the state of Florida, and everybody's excited and look at populations are increasing. But if you look at that hatchling success ratio, how many of those eggs actually are viable hatchlings returning to sea? And the gender of those turtles. The gender is determined by the temperature of the sand. So as our climate warms we have had only females. The researchers, like Dr. Jeanette Wyneken who's in the film, they have only seen females for the past three years in the state of Florida. So it's frightening. So yes we have a lot of nests, but I think two years ago the hatchling success ratio was about 38 percent compared to five years ago when it was about 81 percent. If you do the math we do have a lot of nest and that's a wonderful thing, but we we really need to take care more. 

Ritchie, how important are sea turtles? 

MORETTI: Well they survived about 200 million years, they've adapted to a lot of things. It's like when a condo gets built; you say, 'oh, I'm so sorry there's a condo there.' The turtles will find another spot. They might move up the beach, up a couple of hundred yards, but sometimes those condos that we complain about, actually the shadow from those condos make it possible for the turtles to get into the water. Most cities have so much ambient light that sometimes the condos will block out the ambient light and let the turtles get in the water, so it's kind of a balancing act. 

Watch our Facebook Live at the Studios of Key West. 

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.
Sherrilyn Cabrera is WLRN's PM newscast and digital producer.