Oceana, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, announced last week that they intend to sue the federal government over its failure to designate critical habitat areas for loggerhead sea turtles in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – an action required under the Endangered Species Act but that has not yet been done.
Loggerhead sea turtles currently face threats from commercial fisheries, habitat destruction, and climate change along our coasts and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately population recovery efforts are slow, as turtles are long-lived animals that typically don’t reach sexual maturity until 20-35 years of age.
The designation of critical habitat is expected to help restore plummeting population numbers, as species with identified critical habitat are more than twice as likely to show recovery in overall numbers. The designation of critical habitat will likely protect nesting and foraging grounds that are important to the survival and recovery of these turtles.
In order to designate critical habitat, the federal government must first identify areas that are essential to the survival and recovery of the species. More than 90 percent of the U.S. Atlantic nesting population of loggerheads nests on U.S. beaches along the eastern coast of Florida. Critical habitat designation is vital to the survival and recovery of threatened and endangered species. Every day the government delays means more turtles caught in nets and more habitat areas destroyed without consideration of the impacts on the population.
Last week the U.S. government issued bittersweet news for loggerhead sea turtles.
First, the good news: After almost four years of debate, the government decided to upgrade Pacific loggerhead sea turtles to “endangered” from “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The bad news is that Atlantic loggerhead turtles will still be considered “threatened,” despite the recommendations of the government’s own scientists.
Loggerheads have declined by at least 80 percent in the North Pacific and could become functionally or ecologically extinct by the mid-21st century if additional protections are not put into place. Meanwhile, Florida beaches, which host the largest nesting population of loggerheads in the Northwest Atlantic, have seen more than a 25 percent decline in nesting since 1998.
In 2009, a team of government scientists published a report that classified both populations of loggerhead turtles as “currently at risk of extinction.” In other words, the government dismissed its own scientists’ conclusions about Northwest Atlantic loggerheads.
The government’s review of loggerhead status was prompted in 2007 by petitions from Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, which asked the government to enforce stronger protections for loggerheads and their habitats.
Unfortunately, the government has also postponed measures that would establish critical loggerhead habitats, an important step in achieving improved protections for key nesting beaches and migratory and feeding areas in the ocean.
We’re making progress, but as you can see, there’s still a long way to go. We’ll continue working to protect sea turtles – and you can help. Tell your representative to save sea turtles from extinction.