PANAMA CITY BEACH – As pictures emerged online this summer of trash left on the beach – including shocking images of an endangered sea turtle ensnared and strangled in a beach chair – many residents and stakeholders have questions about beach clean up.
Gregg Tonkin, a condo owner at Seychelles, said he frequently visits from his home state of Alabama and also subscribes to social media forums where other condo owners regularly air grievances about the removal of tents, chairs and other items left on the beach over night. He said he has witnessed more “tent skeletons” left on the beach this year than in the past several.
“I can see where tents are staying up all night long,” Tonkin said. “Last year, it wasn’t so bad, but this year it’s been very apparent the contractor isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s an aggravation to a lot of people.”
To try to get some answers, Tonkin asked The News Herald through the Bay Asked, We Answered series: Is the “Leave No Trace” law being enforced, what hinders enforcement and why have a law on the books if there is no means of enforcing it?
The “Leave No Trace” law dates back to 2012 and was eventually amended to cover the entire 19 miles of white sand beaches of Bay County. It was meant to deter visitors and locals alike from leaving items that could act as obstacles for maintenance of the beach, security patrols and sea turtles – not to mention adversely effect the general aesthetics. It essentially protects contractors hired to cleanup items left from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on the sand.
The Bay County Tourist Development Council (TDC) pays up to $102,000 each year for removal of the items, since clean beaches help attract tourists and investors and drive the local economy.
“Panama City Beach, Bay County and the TDC have taken great strides to make sure we have the best quality product for our visitors,” said TDC spokeswoman Catie Feeney. “We cannot build our community of visitors without clean beaches, and Leave No Trace is a critical tool for that.”
Ironically, in the later months of summer, beach clean up comes into conflict with state law regarding one of the creatures it is meant to protect: nesting sea turtles.
“Fortunately and unfortunately, it is our busiest time of the year,” Feeney said.
In those months, stretches of the beach are separated into six zones, and each is maintained semi-weekly. Clean-up crews rake the beach six days a week and pick up trash two times each day. But if a turtle nest is identified, clean-up crews are prohibited by state law from getting to the zone until after sun-up, Feeney said.
“Because of the lack of light on the beach at night, due to restrictions by sea turtle regulations, they work to collect as much debris as possible,” she said. “Come morning, before any of the beach crews can put their heavy equipment on the sand, clean-up areas have to be cleared by local turtle watch crews.”
Feeney said beach maintenance has not been different this year as opposed to any other. There are signs inside all local hotels and posted at beach accesses that encourage visitors to leave only footprints. Beyond that, the TDC also invites public input to help with areas of the beach that demand more attention.
“We cannot have boots on the ground everywhere,” Feeney said. “If there is an issue not being taken care of, contact us. We can get that resolved.”
When told about the TDC’s responses, Tonkin said he was not satisfied.
He maintained that this year’s clean-up efforts appear to be more lax than recent years. He said that he saw the horrendous pictures of the strangled, endangered seat turtle and agreed protecting them should be a priority. However, one does not have to be sacrificed for the other, Tonkin said.
Ultimately, he said the Leave No Trace law seemed like a “feel good law” since it only encourages people to clean up after themselves. Tonkin suggested a solution could be more oversight to make sure the contractors carry out beach clean ups in a timely manner.
“It’s a great law, and it ought to be strictly enforced,” Tonkin said. “I just hate seeing our bed taxes wasted, and I just hate seeing a law on the books we can’t enforce.”