Lawsuit targets critical habitat for loggerhead sea turtles

Endangered species still facing threats from fishing, coastal development

A NOAA map showing the range of loggerhead sea turtles.
A loggerhead sea turtle off the coast of England. Photo courtesy NOAA/Matthew Weeks.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Federal officials aren’t moving fast enough to protect critical habitat for endangered loggerhead sea turtles, according to conservation advocates, who hope to speed up the process with a lawsuit aimed at spurring the National Marine Fisheries Service to act sooner, rather than later.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, critical habitat protection would help safeguard key nesting beaches as well as migratory and feeding areas in the oceans. The designation would also prohibit federal projects that would potentially destroy or harm these areas to ensure the conservation and recovery of imperiled sea turtles. Endangered species that benefit from protected critical habitat are twice as likely to show signs of recovery than those without it.

At stake are critical nesting beaches in Florida, as well as other areas in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The peninsular Florida population of loggerheads is one of only two with more than 10,000 individuals (the other being in Oman). But Florida beaches have experienced nearly a 40 percent decline in nesting since 1998, with minor rebounds in recent years.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the greatest threat to loggerheads is from  incidental capture in fishing gear, primarily in longlines and gillnets, but also in trawls, traps and pots, and dredges. Harvesting of loggerheads also still occurs in places, for example, in the Bahamas, Cuba, and Mexico, and is a serious and continuing threat to loggerhead recovery.

Many local nesting beaches are protected at some level and often monitored by state wildlife agencies and volunteer networks. Federal biologists have worked with the fishing industry to reduce mortality, developing  turtle excluder devices (TEDs) to reduce the mortality of sea turtles incidentally captured in shrimp trawl gear.

TEDs that are large enough to exclude even the largest sea turtles are now required in shrimp trawl nets. Since 1989, the U.S. has prohibited the importation of shrimp harvested in a manner that adversely affects sea turtles. The import ban does not apply to nations that have adopted sea turtle protection programs comparable to that of the U.S.

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.

Loggerheads grow up to 250 pounds and don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re about 35. Their powerful jaws enable them to feed on whelks and conchs. The species is circumglobal, found in all the worlds temperate oceans and seas, including the eastern Mediterranean. In the Atlantic, their range extends from Newfoundland all the way to Argentina.

“With the seas rising and development transforming our coasts and oceans, sea turtles don’t have many safe havens left to nest and feed,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “To save these amazing turtles, we have to identify and protect the places they live.”

“The Endangered Species Act is a safety net for species like loggerhead sea turtles that are on a path toward extinction,” said Beth Lowell, campaign director at Oceana. “By protecting the regions vital to their well-being, we can help rebuild plummeting sea turtle populations. The government is failing loggerhead sea turtles by delaying the designation of critical habitat.”

“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.”

Click here for more information about loggerhead populations and to download the petitions.


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