Critical habitat designated for loggerhead turtles

Associated PressJuly 9, 2014 

FILE | Skully, a 70 pound loggerhead sea turtle

SHANNON GREENE, HERALDONLINE.COM Buy Photo

— About 685 miles of beaches and nearly 200,000 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico have been declared critical habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles.

It was the largest such federal designation in history, according to environmental groups that went to court to make the government designate habitat necessary for the turtles to recover.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed 88 nesting beaches in six states.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service listed marine areas including waters just off beaches, winter habitat in North Carolina, breeding areas in Florida and narrow migration corridors between the two. It also listed mats of Sargassum — also known as sea holly and Gulf weed — in the western Gulf of Mexico and in U.S. waters within the Atlantic Gulf Stream.

Two beaches totaling 37 miles of coast were deleted from the original proposal because officials already had plans in place to protect the turtles, agency spokesman Charles Underwood said.

A federal agency that names a critical habitat must be consulted before federal permits or contracts are issued there. The designation does not affect land ownership or create wildlife preserves or refuges.

Offshore oil and gas leases already required NOAA Fisheries consultation to consider effects on sea turtles, all of which are endangered or threatened, spokeswoman Connie Barclay said. Effects on Sargassum habitat now must also be considered but are unlikely to affect the leases, she said.

The loggerhead is the most common sea turtle in the Southeast. Officials say the long-lived species is vulnerable to collisions with boats, fishing nets and alterations to beaches.

"While migrating thousands of miles in the course of their lifetimes, loggerheads face persistent threats from fishing gear, pollution and climate change," said Amanda Keledjian, a marine scientist at Oceana, one of the groups that sued NOAA and the wildlife agency. "This critical habitat designation is essential for the future survival and recovery of sea turtles in the U.S. and will ensure that populations are more resilient in the future."

Loggerheads come ashore to lay eggs along about 1,530 miles of coastal beaches, according to a joint news release.

"Given the vital role loggerhead sea turtles play in maintaining the health of our oceans, rebuilding their populations is key as we work to ensure healthy and resilient oceans for generations to come," said Eileen Sobeck, NOAA's assistant administrator for fisheries.

The turtles' powerful jaws break up crustaceans' shells, leaving fragments that return nutrients to the ocean floor. They also eat jellyfish, helping control the creatures that prey on fish eggs and larvae. More than 100 kinds of small animals, including crabs, live on loggerheads' shells. The turtles also carry nutrients onto beaches.

Florida is one of two areas worldwide where more than 10,000 females nest each year, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. More than 1,000 nest in areas along the other East Coast states, while the Gulf states see 100 to 999 females.

"The fate of more than just the loggerhead sea turtle rests on the health of Atlantic coastal environments," said Director Dan Ashe. "By conserving the turtle and protecting its habitat, we are helping preserve not only this emblematic species, but also the way of life for millions of Americans."

During hearings last year, officials from coastal communities said their residents are willing to do many things for turtles, but they worried that the critical habitat designation would hurt their towns by closing beaches or limiting beach rebuilding projects to winter, which would drive up the cost.

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Online:

www.fws.gov/northflorida

http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/turtles/criticalhabitat-loggerhead.htm

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