The only sea turtles visitors to the Loggerhead Marinelife Center will see at this time are the sea turtles whose images are printed on T-shirts in the gift shop.
The large downtown turtle tanks on US 1 in Juno Beach have been empty since early April as Loggerhead faces water quality issues that have disqualified it from harboring and rehabilitating sea turtles — its signature activity since opening in 1983.
The center’s problems go beyond the tanks that are supposed to contain the green and loggerhead turtles that nest on the beaches of northern Palm Beach County. The popular destination has also seen the deaths of three turtles and a series of staff departures following the campus expansion and the arrival of a new chief executive, Kyle Van Houtan.
According to six current and former employees who spoke to The Palm Beach Post, more than a dozen people have resigned or informed the center that they will be leaving soon due to mismanagement and concerns about the reptile patients.
Some of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s center’s sea turtle permits — which allow it to rehabilitate the animals — are on the line as the people named on the permits leave, bringing their expertise with them. .
What’s left is a CEO striving to beat rumours, local leaders wary of sending even more tax dollars to the center, visitors disappointed by the absence of sea turtles, and a recently renovated $26 million center that’s star patients. fog.
“I understand that a lot has changed here and we understand that there has been a lot of concern,” said Van Houtan. “We will come out of this stronger.”
On Wednesday, Loggerhead ran a full-page ad in the print edition of The Palm Beach Post, thanking donors, staff and volunteers amid what the board of directors called the center’s “significant growing pains.”
Loggerhead’s problems started last July when salinity levels in sea turtle nursing tanks dropped and began to fluctuate.
While ocean salinity is about 35 parts per thousand, FWC requires sea turtle tanks to have salinity of 20 to 40 parts per thousand. According to Van Houtan and collaborators who monitored the salinity of the water, the amount of salt in the water brought into Loggerhead fluctuated in the upper 20s and low 30s.
Employees were concerned about the low salinity and the fluctuation of salinity in the tanks and alerted FWC. License holders are required to report issues affecting animal welfare within 24 hours of discovery.
Because sea turtles live naturally in the ocean, too little salt in the water can cause them to retain more water and exacerbate health problems such as anemia. Changing levels threaten the stability of the animals while they are being rehabilitated, according to FWC and Loggerhead collaborators.
Van Houtan told The Post that the center determined that the changes in salinity were caused by contractor error and run-off water entering Loggerhead’s intake pump system.
In an official statement, he linked the salinity problems to a nearby beach renovation project just north of Donald Ross Road that took place in January 2021.
Although the entire system is underground, employees believe the renovation project added sand to the beach around the inlet pump and resulted in less ocean water and more runoff in the tanks.
“While the pipes are stationary and have not moved, the beach renovation has moved the ocean further away from the pipes,” Van Houtan said. “If you add 100 linear feet to the beach, you push the ocean further away. … Our pumps (work) harder to get that ocean water and even suck in some fresh water.”
Loggerhead employees told The Post that freshwater also included stormwater and runoff from the street above – as salinity dropped more drastically after major rainstorms.
Fluctuating salinity led to widespread problems in the water system at Loggerhead, and the staff who spoke to The Post said it led to the deaths of three young sea turtles at the center in October.
In mid-October, new patients were not allowed to enter the facility, but FWC granted limited admissions in early January. In February, several sea turtles were successfully rehabilitated and released, Van Houtan said in a written statement released Tuesday.
But on April 8, staff noticed tiny air bubbles in the seawater influx. Bubbles can be harmful to sea turtles, especially small turtles, as they can get into their bloodstream and cause decompression sickness, similar to “the bends” divers can encounter when the pressure around them changes too quickly.
As a result of the air bubbles, FWC has removed and relocated all sea turtles from the center’s care. The nearest sea turtle rehabilitation program is about 40 miles south at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton.
More than a dozen staffers resign from Loggerhead
Employees who have left the center paint a picture of poor communication, concerns about the well-being of their patients and mismanagement by Van Houtan, who started as general manager last July.
Before joining Loggerhead, Van Houtan was the chief scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. He was previously the program leader for sea turtle assessments for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He has a doctorate in ecology and environmental ethics from Duke University.
But his communication style may have contributed to the firing of departing Loggerhead employees and is the basis of at least one lawsuit.
In late March, the center’s former marketing director sued Loggerhead, accusing Van Houtan and the center’s management of misleading her and the public about the water quality problems in the tanks.
Marilu Flores was hired in November 2021 after the water quality problems started. She said she would never have taken the job had she known the problems at the center.
In the lawsuit, Flores called the experience a “nightmare” and detailed Van Houtan’s attempts to cover up water quality issues, such as hiring a crisis management company and instructing employees to “don’t tell anyone” about the center’s problems.
Now the mass resignations have jeopardized the centre’s permits.
FWC issues permits to “qualified individuals” to handle sea turtles rather than institutions, and employees say at least 20 full-time employees have resigned or are in the process of resigning. The Loggerhead website lists 32 staff members.
Van Houtan says he is aware of 14 employees who have resigned since he took over the reins.
Loggerhead has 30 days to hire new “qualified individuals” who may have the permits or the center risks losing it and its turtle housing and rehabilitation capabilities.
Employees who spoke to The Post say they were “pushed out” by Van Houtan for taking their management concerns to human resources. Others said he prevented them from getting pay raises, awards for their work and subsidies for new projects.
They have launched 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 says. “Loggerhead Marinelife Center’s reputation, in the community and among its peers – locally and globally – has bottomed out.”
Van Houtan said he has held town halls with the scientists, education coordinators and volunteers at the center to identify and address issues.
“Several members of LMC’s staff and volunteer base have resigned in recent weeks over disagreements with our direction,” he wrote in a statement. “We understand that change doesn’t come easy, and we are working to improve the situation by improving communication and accepting more input from our stakeholders.”
Van Houtan told The Post that the center’s core business remains to rehabilitate sea turtles, educate the public about ocean conservation and generate revenue to keep the mission afloat.
But staffers pointed to new aquariums and revenue-generating event space as signs that Loggerhead is turning into an aquarium rather than a hospital for sea turtles.
City leaders withhold taxpayers’ money from center over concerns
Concern about Loggerhead’s operations rippled through the community, leaving visitors and nearby city leaders concerned about its future.
Although volunteers said spring break was a busy week, only a handful of visitors were in the center on Tuesday morning.
Parents and children wandered the maze of 26 empty turtle containment tanks, passed water-only aquariums and interacted with virtual aquariums projected onto the wall in the newly expanded center.
On Tuesday, Jupiter’s city council elected not to allocate Loggerhead money in its charitable donation program, citing concerns about water quality and staffing. This year was the first year that Loggerhead signed up for the donation program, according to city records.
Although the center is located in Juno Beach, according to the filing, it requested $7,500 for the Oceans of Opportunity program, an education effort for “disadvantaged Jupiter residents.” According to the most recent tax documents, the center’s annual revenue is $9 million.
The City of Juno Beach, the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County, and the Palm Beach County Board of Commissioners are members of the center’s “Circle of 100,” a group made up of donors who give $5,000 or more a year to Loggerhead.
Jupiter was the first council in the north of the county to speak out about refusing funding to Loggerhead.
City Councilman Ron Delaney said Tuesday he recently brought family to the center while they were visiting. He called the visit “a big flop” because there were no sea turtles.
“There was nothing there,” he said of the new turtle tanks.