Student Jacqueline Knake talks about sea turtles as Jeffrey Parisi and Cara Dabney take notes.

USFSM students tackle sea turtle issue in class assignment

By: Rich Shopes

Posted: November 18, 2015

SARASOTA, Fla. (Nov. 18, 2015) – USF Sarasota-Manatee’s Dr. Eric Hodges wanted to try something different in his twice-weekly political science class “Introduction to U.S. Government,” so in addition to the usual diet of lectures, classroom discussion and quizzes he challenged his students “to become better citizens.”

The effort, he says, not only invigorated the class – offering a hands-on tutorial about the wheels of government – but it could prompt a wider discussion off campus.

Hodges said he tasked his students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, to identify a topic they can rally around in a lesson about political activism. After mulling police brutality, racial profiling and other hot-button national issues, the class settled on a local one – nesting sea turtles on Siesta Key, Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island.

Talking with scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory, the students learned that the beach-cleaning machines that scoop up seaweed and other gulf vegetation – or wrack – to beautify beaches during late spring and summer are damaging turtle eggs and the hatchlings that hide in the material.

The problem isn’t so easily resolved. Stopping the machines from running isn’t an option – at least for now. The issue is complicated by the region’s tourism industry, particularly hotels and condo owners who might balk at beaches strewn with seaweed.

“Siesta Key is one of the best beaches in America and I think people in tourism might oppose not raking the beaches,” said Hodges, noting that many Europeans vacation here during the summer.

He gives his students kudos for tackling the little-known issue. Much attention has been paid to the nests but not to the role of seaweed. But while the lesson was intended to understand how issues bubble up to enter the political realm, Dr. Hodges’ students are hoping to go a step further by affecting some kind of change, though what form that takes remains to be seen.

“I think what we need to do is raise local awareness,” said sophomore Jacquelin Redl, 24, who’s studying to be a teacher.

She said that after talking with scientists, the students set out to speak with politicians, environmental officials and local non-profits. Eventually, they plan to approach news media to urge coverage of the issue and possibly spark a communitywide discussion.

At first the students wanted a policy to ban the machines during summer, but after speaking with state and local officials they learned it could take years to enact a change like that. Redl said she’s upbeat nonetheless. If nothing else, their efforts could prompt more discussion about the creatures.

“I feel like a lot of people have contacted us who have been interested in what we have to say and it does feel like we have had some kind of impact in starting a dialogue,” she said.

Dennis Metz, a senior psychology student who proposed the assignment’s topic, said it might be enough now to spur discussion about wrack, which not only benefits turtles but also nesting sea birds.

“Ultimately what we would like to have is some workable partnership between the business community and groups like Mote that understand the importance of not disturbing the nesting season,” he said.

“Some people might think we’re a bunch of tree huggers, but it’s not about that. It’s about, ‘Can you get past having seaweed on the beaches a few months out of the year?’” he said. “There are various marine mammals that rely on the beach and the wrack for survival. It provides nesting material and creates dunes over time.”

Even if the students don’t prevail, Dr. Hodges said he’s satisfied that they learned about the different layers of government and the role citizens can play at the local level.

“They’re finding out how challenging it is to change policy,” he said. “Sometimes reading about government and political institutions, it’s all very abstract, but to get out there and talk to policy makers and see how the process works I think it makes it more real.”

Read more news stories below or view as a list