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Groups want critical habitat for loggerhead sea turtles

A loggerhead sea turtle off the coast of New England. Photo courtesy NOAA/Matthew Weeks.

A loggerhead sea turtle off the coast of New England. Photo courtesy NOAA/Matthew Weeks.

Lawsuit filed to speed up designation

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Gill net fishing in Mexico and coastal development in Florida is driving loggerhead sea turtles to the brink of extinction, according to conservation groups, who filed a lawsuit this week to try and get better protection for the turtles’s critical habitat.

The groups acknowledge that conservation efforts in Florida have helped populations recover, but insist that the overall long-term threats require greater protection. The number of loggerhead sea turtles nesting along Florida beaches has grown in recent years, but these numbers have varied significantly over the past two decades.

North Pacific loggerheads, which nest in Japan and cross the Pacific to feed along the coasts of Southern California and Mexico, have declined by at least 80 percent over the past decade and were recently reclassified from threatened to endangered. It has been estimated that more than 1,000 loggerheads die each year as a result of gillnet fishing in Mexico, with more than 400 washing ashore dead last summer.

“The impacts of Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storm Debbie have made clear that healthy coastal beaches are important — both for humans and for nesting sea turtles. Critical habitat will help ensure thoughtful coastal development in the face of sea-level rise and will help leave a legacy of stable shores for future generations of people and turtles,” said Jaclyn Lopez, a Florida attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The Endangered Species Act is a safety net for imperiled species like loggerhead sea turtles, but the federal government has failed in its duty to protect the areas these sea turtles call home,” said Beth Lowell, campaign director at Oceana. “The longer the government delays in designating and protecting critical habitat, the more turtles will continue be caught in fishing nets and have their nesting beaches destroyed. Only by protecting the regions vital to their survival can these populations recover.”

“Loggerheads on both coasts need robust protections from fisheries, oil spills and climate change to reverse their trajectory toward extinction,” said Teri Shore, program director at Turtle Island Restoration Network. “While awaiting the protections they deserve, loggerhead sea turtles continue to die, entangled in nets or hooked on longlines for swordfish and tuna.”

The main threats to loggerhead sea turtle recovery are from serious injury or death from entanglement in fishing gear, destruction of foraging grounds and loss of nesting habitat. Scientists estimate sea levels will rise by at least three to six feet by the end of the century, with East Coast sea levels rising three to four times faster than the global average, flooding important sea turtle habitats on vulnerable Florida beaches. In addition, beach armoring and coastal development prevent natural beach migration of sea turtles to adapt to rising seas.

Critical habitat protection would help safeguard marine and terrestrial areas essential for migrating, feeding and nesting. The designation would ensure that federally permitted activities do not continue to drive these species to the brink of extinction by destroying these important areas.  Evidence shows that endangered or threatened species that have protected critical habitat are twice as likely to show signs of recovery as those without it.

On Sept. 22, 2011, loggerhead sea turtles worldwide were protected as nine separate populations under the Endangered Species Act, including endangered North Pacific loggerheads and threatened Northwest Atlantic loggerheads. This triggered a requirement to designate critical habitat areas concurrently with the listing, with a deadline the government has failed to meet; the lawsuit, brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and Turtle Island Restoration Network, targets that failure.

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