The University of Central Florida and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have reached a historic agreement that will establish a permanent conservation research facility along the Brevard County coastline.

UCF has run a sea turtle monitoring and research program on the beaches of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in southern Brevard County for more than 30 years. UCF findings about sea turtle behavior are among the reasons the refuge was created in 1990. In recent years, UCF biologists and their students have used facilities at the refuge as a base from which they do most of their work, which includes early morning and overnight beach surveys.

The new agreement gives the university more control and responsibility for the existing property onsite, establishes a protocol that will allow UCF to build research facilities and a plan that will give UCF oversight of the facilities for 40 years or more.

“This agreement cements a decades-old partnership between the University of Central Florida and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” said College of Sciences Dean Michael Johnson, who worked with a team from the college to make the agreement happen. “I am thrilled at the opportunity that this gives us to shape the future science of marine turtle conservation.”

The two groups worked about two years to reach the historic agreement.

“This kind of arrangement has never been done before, but the long and beneficial relationship with UCF and its researchers gave us cause to pursue it. We look forward to continuing to work closely with UCF for the benefit of sea turtles and other conservation research efforts for decades to come,” said Bill Miller, Refuge Manager for Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge.

Biologist and assistant professor Kate Mansfield who leads the UCF Marine Turtle Research Group is thrilled.

She and her team of students spend June to November counting sea turtle nests and eggs. The turtles lay the eggs under starlight, so the researchers work late into the night and early morning. The team also conducts research in the Indian River Lagoon near the Sebastian Inlet, checking on the health of juvenile sea turtles and learning about their reproductive habits. Currently she and her students work in tight quarters of the Fish and Wildlife Services’ Caretta House. The new agreement ensures the researchers continued access to the house, but also gives the university permission to build two structures – a building with a wet/dry lab and instructional space, including a conference room, and a crew house with overnight accommodations. The Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to have use of the current and future facilities to conduct refuge business.

“The Brevard County portion of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge that we monitor is one of the most important nesting beaches in the Western Hemisphere,” Mansfield said. “We count over 20,000 nests on this stretch of beach in any given season. With the huge numbers of green sea turtle nests we are encountering in recent years, the turtles really keep us busy.”

The agreement was announced in the middle of sea turtle nesting season.

“The intensive sea turtle nest monitoring by the University of Central Florida’s Marine Turtle Research, led by Dr. Llewellyn Ehrhart in central and south Brevard County, ultimately resulted in the creation of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge,” said Ann Marie Lauritsen, southeast sea turtle coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “The partnership between the refuge and the University of Central Florida has secured the long-term protection of the most significant loggerhead nesting habitat in the Western Hemisphere in additional to being the training ground for many sea turtle conservationists.

UCF must raise $5 million within the next five years to construct the new buildings. In the meantime, the UCF turtle crew will continue using the current building just across U.S. Highway A1A from the Archie Carr beaches.

The service said it will be working with its UCF partners to ensure the public is informed throughout the planning process because public input is key to a successful project. The service plans to provide many opportunities to gain a wide range of perspectives.

UCF is home to important leaders in sea turtle research and conservation biology. The new center will provide a home to expand that research to study the entire life cycle of these endangered and mysterious creatures that spend most of their lives at sea, which is one of Mansfield’s goals.

“The agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gives me peace of mind and will provide an excellent home base for our summer interns and my graduate students,” Mansfield said. “I envision a center for whole-life-history research will foster collaboration and conservation by providing space for visiting researchers, office space for federal turtle folks, and space for sea turtle working groups to meet.”

While sea turtle research will be the brunt of the work conducted at this site, once the new space is built, UCF expects to broaden its research to other coastal conservation areas including studies about the endangered southeastern beach mouse, scrub jays and gopher tortoises that also call the Archie Carr Refuge home.

The agreement is especially significant because UCF is also working to create a Sustainable Coastal Systems focus at the university. The goal is to bring together biologists, chemists and engineers with anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, planners, emergency managers, and economists to better integrate science and social needs into more effective environmental stewardship. This includes environmental and hazard mitigation planning and public policy development by linking the ecological security of coastal ecosystems with the economic security of coastal communities.

“Archie Carr NWR is considered the preeminent sea turtle refuge in the United States,” Miller said. “Sea turtle conservation efforts are best delivered through a partnership approach to conservation where all who care deeply about the fate of our sea turtle populations are involved.  Our partnership with UCF helps bolster science discovery at a time when understanding the fate of our sea turtle populations from many threats including the consequences of climate change is most needed.  We also, as a community, continue to help carry forward Mr. Carr’s legacy and vision of a refuge for sea turtles.”