Beach nesting areas, open ocean habitat protected
FRISCO — Loggerhead sea turtles may have a better chance of surviving — and even thriving — after federal agencies designated 685 miles of beaches along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines, as well as 300,000 square miles of ocean, as critical habitat. The decision came after more than five years of delays and court battles, as conservation groups sought protection for the turtles.
While the ocean habitat rule provides unprecedented habitat protection for loggerhead sea turtles, it only protects nearshore habitat for one mile off nesting beaches despite science showing the importance of habitat three miles from beaches for females and hatchlings. The rule also failed to identify critical habitat for the endangered North Pacific Ocean loggerhead, which is at risk due to Hawaii and California fisheries activities in areas overlapping with the loggerhead’s habitat.
“The lives of loggerhead sea turtles are truly miraculous; they survive our oil spills, plastic pollution and fishing nets, only to return to their natal beaches, which are now threatened by sea-level rise. Today’s designation will maximize conservation efforts by protecting turtles on land and sea, offering hope for recovery,” said Jaclyn Lopez, a Florida-based staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Northwest Atlantic loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings leave nesting beaches and spend up to 12 years in the open ocean, before returning to coastal areas where they stay until they reach maturity around 35 years of age and seek out beaches to nest. Because of their long migrations and dependence on these natal beaches, critical habitat designation that includes beaches as well as coastal and ocean waters promises to conserve areas necessary for recovery.
The nesting beach habitat — identified in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule for terrestrial habitat — encompasses 84 percent of all known nesting areas. The National Marine Fisheries Service’s ocean habitat rule includes protections for five types of habitat: nearshore reproductive; breeding; migratory corridors; winter habitat; and Sargassum habitat. Sargassum is a type of seaweed that provides food, cover, and warm water for optimal growth of young loggerheads.
“Protecting critical habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles helps assure the recovery of this gentle, ancient, mysterious species, as well as the local communities of the Gulf and Atlantic coast that also benefit from clean, healthy beachfronts and inland waters,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network.
“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. “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.”
Loggerhead sea turtles were first declared endangered in 1978, yet their critical habitat was never protected as required by the Endangered Species Act. Today’s rule comes as a direct result of a lawsuit filed in January 2013 by the Center, Oceana and Turtle Island Restoration Network after the government failed to respond to petitions to strengthen protections for loggerhead populations dating back to 2007.
Protecting critical habitat does not limit public access, but instead increases awareness of important sea turtle areas as well as requires that federal activities be reviewed to ensure there are no potentially harmful impacts to loggerheads’ survival and recovery.