The only sea turtles visitors to the Loggerhead Marinelife Center will see at this time are those whose images are printed on T-shirts in the gift shop.
The large center turtle tanks on US 1 at Juno Beach have been empty since early April as Caouanne faces water quality issues that have disqualified it for sea turtle housing and rehabilitation – its flagship business since its opening in 1983.
The center’s problems go beyond the tanks believed to hold the green and loggerhead sea turtles that nest on beaches in northern Palm Beach County. The popular destination has also seen the deaths of three turtles and a series of staff departures following the expansion of its campus and the arrival of a new chief executive, Kyle Van Houtan.
More than a dozen people have quit or told the center they will be leaving shortly due to mismanagement and concern for reptile patients, according to six current and former employees who spoke to the Palm Beach. Post.
Some of the center’s sea turtle permits issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — which allow it to rehabilitate the animals — are at stake when the people named on the permits leave, taking their expertise with them.
What’s left is a CEO scrambling to get ahead of rumors, local leaders worried about sending more taxpayer dollars to the center, visitors disappointed by the lack of sea turtles, and a newly renovated center. of $26 million that misses its star patients.
“I understand there have been a lot of changes here, and we understand there has been a lot of concern,” Van Houtan said. “We’re going to come out of this stronger.”
On Wednesday, Loggerhead placed a full-page ad in the print edition of the Palm Beach Post, thanking its donors, staff members and volunteers amid what the board called “growing pains.” important” from the center.
Loggerhead problems began last July when salinity levels in sea turtle care tanks plummeted and began to fluctuate.
While the salinity of the ocean is around 35 parts per thousand, FWC requires sea turtle tanks to have a salinity between 20 and 40 parts per thousand. According to Van Houtan and staff members who monitored the salinity of the water, the amount of salt in the water brought to Caouanne fluctuated between the 20s and 30s.
Staff members became concerned about low salinity and fluctuating salt levels in the tanks and alerted FWC. License holders are required to report issues that affect animal welfare within 24 hours of discovering them.
Since sea turtles naturally live in the ocean, too little salt in the water can cause them to retain more water and worsen health issues such as anemia. The changing levels threaten the stability of the animals as they rehabilitate, according to FWC and Loggerhead staff.
Van Houtan told the Post that the center determined the salinity changes were due to contractor error and runoff water entering Loggerhead’s intake pump system.
In an official statement, he linked the salinity issues to a nearby beach restoration project just north of Donald Ross Road that took place in January 2021.
While the entire system is underground, staff members believe the restoration project added sand to the beach around the intake pump and resulted in less seawater and more runoff entering the reservoirs.
“While the pipes are stationary and haven’t moved, beach replenishment has moved the ocean away from the pipes,” Van Houtan said. “When you add 100 linear feet to the beach, you’re taking the ocean away. … Our pumps (work) harder to get that sea water and even suck in fresh water.
Loggerhead staff members told the Post that fresh water includes rainwater and runoff from the street above – as salinity drops more drastically after large rainstorms.
Fluctuating salinity has led to widespread problems in Loggerhead’s water system, and staff members who spoke with The Post said it led to the deaths of three sea turtle hatchlings at the center in October.
New patients were barred from entering the facility in mid-October, but the FWC granted limited admissions in early January. Through February, several sea turtles have been successfully rehabilitated and released, Van Houtan said in a written statement released Tuesday.
But on April 8, staff observed tiny air bubbles in the seawater inlets. The bubbles can be harmful to sea turtles, especially small turtles, as they can enter their bloodstream and cause decompression sickness, similar to the “bends” that divers can experience when the pressure changes too quickly around them.
Due to the air bubbles, FWC removed all sea turtles from the center’s care and relocated them. The nearest sea turtle rehabilitation program is about 40 miles south at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton.
Over a dozen staff resign from Loggerhead
Staff members who have left the center paint a picture of poor communication, concern over the welfare of their patients and mismanagement by Van Houtan, who started as chief executive last July.
Prior to joining Loggerhead, Van Houtan was the chief scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Previously, he was responsible for the sea turtle assessment program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He holds a doctorate in ecology and environmental ethics from Duke University.
But his communication style may have contributed to the resignations of outgoing Loggerhead staffers and is the basis of at least one lawsuit.
In late March, the center’s former marketing director sued Loggerhead, accusing Van Houtan and center management of misleading her and the public about water quality issues in the reservoirs.
Marilu Flores was hired in November 2021 after water quality concerns began. She said she would never have taken the job if she had known about the center’s problems.
In the lawsuit, Flores called the experience a “nightmare” and Van Houtan’s detailed attempts to cover up water quality issues, such as hiring a crisis management company and ordering members staff to “tell no one” about the centre’s problems.
Now the mass resignations have jeopardized the center’s permits.
The FWC issues licenses to “qualified persons” to handle sea turtles instead of institutions, and staffers say at least 20 full-time staff have quit or are in the process of quitting their jobs. The Loggerhead website lists 32 staff members.
Van Houtan said he is aware of 14 staff members who have resigned since he took the reins.
Caouanne has 30 days to hire new “qualified persons” who can hold the permits, otherwise the center risks losing them and its ability to house and rehabilitate turtles.
Staff members who spoke with The Post say they were “cut off” by Van Houtan for raising concerns about management with human resources. Others said he stopped them from getting raises, awards for their work and grants for new projects.
They started an online petition calling for Van Houtan’s resignation. Nearly 300 people have signed.
“During his tenure, staff have been belittled and ridiculed, excluded and misled,” the petition reads. “The reputation of the Loggerhead Marinelife Center, in the community and among its peers – locally and globally – has hit rock bottom.”
Van Houtan said he held town hall meetings with the center’s scientists, education coordinators and volunteers to identify and resolve issues.
“Several members of LMC’s staff and volunteer base have resigned over the past few weeks due to a disagreement with our leadership,” he wrote in a statement. “We understand that change does not come easily, and we are working to improve the situation by increasing communication and accepting more input from our stakeholders.”
Van Houtan told the Post that the center’s primary mission remains the rehabilitation of sea turtles, educating the public about ocean conservation and generating revenue to keep the mission afloat.
But staffers pointed to the new aquariums and revenue-generating event spaces as signs that Loggerhead is turning into an aquarium instead of a sea turtle hospital.
City leaders withholding tax dollars from center citing concerns
Concerns about Loggerhead’s operations have spread through the community, worrying visitors and nearby town leaders about its future.
While volunteers said spring break was a busy week, there were only a handful of visitors to the center on Tuesday morning.
Parents and children strolled through the maze of 26 empty turtle rehabilitation tanks, passed fish tanks filled only with water, and interacted with virtual aquariums projected onto the newly expanded center wall.
On Tuesday, Jupiter City Council opted out of giving money to Loggerhead in its charitable donations program, citing concerns about water quality and staff. This year was the first year Loggerhead applied for the donation program, according to city records.
Although the center is on Juno Beach, it has requested $7,500 for its Oceans of Opportunity program, an education effort for “disadvantaged residents of Jupiter,” according to its application. The center’s annual revenue exceeds $9 million, according to its most recent tax documents.
The City of Juno Beach, the Palm Beach County Cultural Council, and the Palm Beach County Board of Commissioners are members of the center’s “Circle of 100,” a group of donors who give $5,000 or more annually to Loggerhead.
Jupiter was the first North County municipality to discuss Loggerhead’s denial of funding.
City Council member Ron Delaney said Tuesday he recently brought his family to the center when they visited. He called the visit “a big noise” because there were no sea turtles.
“There was nothing there,” he said of the new turtle tanks.