The events happening at Gumbo Limbo are disturbing for true conservationists. As the longtime marine conservationist for the city of Boca Raton and co-founder of the sea turtle rehabilitation facility at Gumbo Limbo, I am very distressed at the lackadaisical behavior of the new incarnation of the Friends of Gumbo Limbo called the Coastal Stewards.

Because of the nonprofit’s lack of attention to detail, Gumbo Limbo has zero sea turtles on site for the first time in over 30 years!

For 25 years, I was proud to work in an environmental education center of world renown. With Florida Atlantic University’s marine laboratory on the Gumbo Limbo campus, sea turtles with a strange disease called fibropapillomatosis could be studied by FAU scientists while at the same time be treated at the sea turtle hospital. When we opened the rehabilitation facility in 2009, we were only the fourth facility in Florida to deal with FP. Days after we opened, a serious cold-stun event flooded all the East Coast turtle hospitals with more than 5,000 patients. We treated 177 of them, second only to the Marathon facility. I encouraged the hiring of Whitney Crowder, a former member of Marathon’s staff, who proved to be an outstanding rehabilitation coordinator.

It’s troubling that the city no longer believes sea turtle rehab fits in with its mission given the program’s outsized role at Gumbo Limbo. Boca Raton has a long history of environmental firsts in Florida: a city-run sea turtle monitoring program in 1976, a beachfront lighting ordinance in 1986, not to mention more than half of Boca Raton’s 5 miles of beaches are parks rather than condos. The city I love has given itself a black eye by allowing removal of the sea turtles.

Supposedly, the city and the Coastal Stewards had been negotiating a transfer of responsibility for sea turtle rehab, including staff, for two years. However, the Coastal Stewards has lost institutional knowledge and expertise. Since the current CEO John Holloway arrived, five good board trustees, many with extensive sea turtle conservation experience, and three members of the nonprofit’s Science Advisory Board have resigned.

Further, Mr. Holloway has no experience with sea turtles. This could have been mitigated with good staffing. But he never made job offers to Ms. Crowder or other rehab staff.

Instead, he allowed the rehabilitation facility to dissolve, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission permit to be withdrawn, staff laid off by the city, and all the sea turtles removed. There are claims of new hires being made, but they apparently are not fully experienced, as evidenced by the veterinarian who resigned being asked to train the new vet candidate.

While the Friends of Gumbo Limbo operated with volunteer leadership, Coastal Stewards pays Mr. Holloway a salary in the $120,000 range, well exceeding that of any city employee at Gumbo Limbo.

I will no longer donate any money to the Coastal Stewards until Mr. Holloway and his overpaid staff are gone and the nonprofit returns to volunteer leadership. I encourage all donors to stop funding Coastal Stewards until they can show responsible stewardship of Gumbo Limbo’s mission, and especially the sea turtles!

— Kirt W. Rusenko,
Marine conservationist, retired
Hampstead, North Carolina

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